Nearly thirty years after he defied a federal court order and called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from integrating Little Rock’s all-white Central High School in the autumn of 1957, Orval E. Faubus mounted a long-shot bid to unseat three-term Gov. Bill Clinton — arguably the state’s most popular governor since Faubus himself — in the state’s 1986 Democratic primary.
That little-remembered primary campaign marked the third and final comeback attempt by the aging Faubus, who had had made two previous attempts to reclaim the governorship in 1970 and 1974, just as Arkansas was beginning to shed its backwoods, hillbilly reputation.
Though briefly considered the frontrunner in what was still practically a one-party state, the race-baiting ex-governor was defeated in a 1970 Democratic runoff, losing to Dale Bumpers by 77,000 votes. Making some headway on the issue of busing, he tried again four years later, polling a somewhat impressive 193,105 votes, or 33.1 percent, while nearly forcing a similar runoff against David H. Pryor.
Faubus, who grew up in an impoverished Ozark Mountain community, never had much money. During the Great Depression, his family trapped rabbits — they called them “Hoover hogs” — for subsistence.
It was a difficult period for everybody, including young Orval whose teacher’s salary had been cut to forty dollars a month, forcing him to hop freight trains to the Pacific Northwest where he supplemented the family’s meager income by working in Washington’s big timber during the summer months, piling brush after logging crews cut down the trees, for 47 ½ cents per hour.
That was big money compared to the 10 or 15 cents an hour he could have earned in the canning factory back home.
Faubus never had two nickels to rub together, a financial predicament that haunted him long after his six terms as governor. On the twentieth anniversary of the tense standoff at Central High School, for example, it was widely reported in the national media that one of the original “Little Rock Nine” was working as a $50,000-a-year assistant labor secretary in the Carter Administration, while Faubus — the longest serving governor in Arkansas history — had been forced to supplement his modest state pension by taking a job as a lowly-paid bank teller in Huntsville, a sparsely-populated mountainous community not too far from Fayetteville.
A dozen years later, the former governor could still be found working as a bank teller — this time in Houston, Texas, where he had moved after divorcing his first wife of 37 years. He returned to Arkansas after his estranged second wife, Elizabeth Westmoreland, was found strangled in a bathtub in 1983, the victim of a fugitive from Florida.
Faubus was still pretty much destitute when he embarked on his seemingly quixotic quest to wrest the governorship from Bill Clinton in 1986.
At the time, Faubus was living in a modest and cramped one-bedroom apartment which doubled as his campaign headquarters.
Compounding matters, Faubus had undergone several surgeries, mostly for pacemakers and angioplasty to improve circulation to his heart, and wasn’t in the best of health when he launched his final comeback attempt.
He nevertheless campaigned as vigorously as his failing health would allow.
“Some say I have an uphill battle in this race,” he said in announcing his candidacy on March 20, less than ten weeks before the primary. He knew it was going to be an extremely difficult struggle, but was determined to take his populist message to every voter in Arkansas — “rich and poor, country and city, black and white” alike.
Unlike his father who had been a longstanding member of the Socialist Party — a huge photograph of Eugene Debs hung in the family’s living room — the younger Faubus was a lifelong Democrat, but undeniably shared some of his father’s antipathy toward banks and corporations. It was a deeply-held aversion that reverberated throughout his 1986 comeback bid as he barnstormed the state talking about exorbitant interest rates and the high cost of utilities and insurance.
“I may not win,” the chain-smoking Faubus told a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer shortly after declaring his candidacy. “But I’ll still feel good that I cried out…I feel like someone should cry out for the ordinary people that are getting stuck on every hand by the money changers now as badly as I’ve ever seen them in my lifetime.”
While the Faubus name sill retained some fading magic among older Arkansans long after he decided not to seek an unprecedented seventh term in 1966, the 76-year-old former governor also realized that his populist image as a defiant segregationist would come up again and again during the campaign, but didn’t think it would have a significant impact on the election‘s outcome.
“It will come up,” he said, acknowledging that it could potentially cause a little trouble for him. “But it’s almost 30 years ago and it’s a settled issue,” he continued. “And I say now — as I’ve always said — that I regret that it ever happened. But it did and it’s part of history.”
Faubus, once an invincible colossus in Arkansas politics, never apologized for figuratively standing in the doorway at Central High School — not even when pressed by reporters some 29 years later. “You see, I’ve always contended that what I did was prevent disorder and violence which would result in destruction of property, injuries to people and possible death. . . . I wanted to maneuver the federal government into the position of enforcing its own court order,” he explained.
The mayor of Little Rock at the time said the threat of violence was a hoax, warning that if trouble developed, “the blame rests squarely on the doorstep of the governor’s mansion.”
Clinton, who was an eleven-year-old boy in nearby Hot Springs when Gov. Faubus stood his ground against the federal authorities in September 1957, had always been ashamed of that controversial and ugly episode in Arkansas history.
“I hated what Faubus did,” recalled Clinton, who as a young politician had once sought the ex-governor’s advice. “We’ve paid a terrible price for that over the years.”
Clinton nevertheless welcomed the one-time symbol of segregation into the race. “I think it will give the voters a clear choice,” he said. “It really is a referendum of the future versus the past.”
It mattered little to the national media — or Clinton, for that matter — that Faubus had endorsed Jesse Jackson for the Democratic presidential nomination two years earlier. His adversaries wanted to focus exclusively on his segregationist past.
The 1957 Central High School incident notwithstanding, Faubus was immensely proud of his record as governor. “I believe when it is eventually studied carefully and objectively that my administration will be classified as one of the most progressive in the history of the state,” he declared.
That record included boosting the state’s industrial development, starting one of the biggest road-building programs in Arkansas history, and establishing community colleges and vocational-technical schools throughout the state.
The congenial Faubus, who had been a reluctant candidate for the presidency on a National States’ Rights ticket in 1960 and was briefly considered as George Wallace’s running mate eight years later, loved campaigning. He thoroughly enjoyed pressing the flesh, a characteristic dating back to his twelve years as governor when he always welcomed unexpected visitors to his office and rarely, if ever, passed up an opportunity to shake a constituent’s hand.
Unfortunately, the 1986 campaign was an exceedingly difficult one for the aging ex-governor. Despite the state’s lingering recession, his criticisms of Clinton as a servile subordinate for the wealthy and the utilities fell on deaf ears and the throngs that had once turned out in the small mountain towns to hear him speak or shake his hand no longer appeared.
The magic was clearly gone.
Moreover, the national media treated him as a curiosity — a relic of sorts — while many of his old supporters had simply died off. Consequently, he found it almost impossible to raise enough money to compete effectively with Clinton’s well-oiled political operation.
The meager $70,000 that Faubus received in contributions was dwarfed by the more than $800,000 raised effortlessly by Clinton during the primary.
“I couldn’t get financed,” lamented Faubus a few years later. Clinton, who was then completing his third term, had tapped virtually all of the former governor’s old sources of funding.
“All those big shots that used to help finance me were in his corner tight as they could be,” sighed Faubus.
Ironically, the pillar of the Old South received some unexpected praise during that primary when — of all people — the Central High School student newspaper all but endorsed his languid candidacy. In an editorial published shortly before the primary, the paper’s editor wrote that “Mr. Faubus doesn’t look too bad” when pitted against Bill Clinton.
The editorial prompted at least one surprised white alumnus to joke that if the former segregationist became governor again, “I’ll probably have to leave Little Rock.”
Stunned by the editorial, Clinton said the editors were “afflicted by lack of memory.”
As in 1970 and 1974, Faubus again fell short, polling 174,402 votes, or nearly 34 percent, in the May 27 Democratic primary. Clinton, who garnered 315,397 votes, won with slightly more than 60 percent of the vote. W. Dean Goldsby, a discredited former executive director of the scandal-ridden Economic Opportunity Agency of Pulaski County and the first African-American to seek the Democratic nomination for governor of Arkansas, lagged far behind, polling a dismal 30,829 votes.
“They never even laid a glove on me,” crowed Clinton while limping to a less-than-impressive primary victory over his two poorly-financed opponents.
Clinton, who publicly pondered running for president in 1988, was easily reelected in November, garnering 64 percent of the vote against former Republican Gov. Frank D. White — one of only two people to have ever defeated Clinton in a general election.
Though the primary contest turned out to be much closer than most pundits expected, for Arkansas’ populist ex-governor it was something of a sad and disappointing last hurrah.
Calling himself a tired and old “has-been,” Faubus graciously conceded to Clinton, hardly aware that the ambitious young governor who forever ended his dream of a second act in American politics would soon be occupying the Oval Office.
Faubus, who never ran for public office again, died in 1994 at the age of eighty-four.