“Maybe this is worth writing about,” the woman smiled softly, an eyebrow raised, her hand and its wineglass gesturing to the crowd.
“I was going to write something about Jim,” I confirmed. (As I did, in this space last week).
She shook her head. “I know. But something about — this.”
Then I understood. She meant the gathering, organized by two close friends and campaign advisers to Jim Argue, the former state senator from Little Rock, who had died a few days previous. She meant what the moment represented, a time and a place and a spirit, the stuff of forgotten headlines and public passions. Argue’s funeral would be held the morning after this twilight assembly of politicos, civic activists and other assorted Argue allies. And the solitary journalist — not that others would have been excluded. (Just how exclusive could any get-together be if reporters were allowed?).
The lady’s suggestion was not to encourage a society page piece, for it wasn’t that sort of event, and it definitely was not a wake. No, it was 60 or so folks who had been invited to a spacious hotel lobby to share memories and stories, to reflect. I don’t recall seeing a single tear. There was much laughter, bonhomie, recollection. Reflection.
Argue, a Democrat, would have approved, as he would have welcomed, warmly, old friends from the Republican ranks. Predictably, they included his closest GOP pal, former senator and former Benton County judge David Bisbee. The two disagreed on some issues, mostly small ones, and largely agreed on big ones. The biggest was the court-mandated education reform drive of a dozen-plus years ago, which merged small, inefficient school districts while pumping scores of millions of new dollars toward the survivors.
Argue and Bisbee were partisan but both were pragmatists who believed in solving problems and cared hardly a whit whether the finished product was labeled conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. Serving as Senate president pro tempore in 2005, Argue named Bisbee his ranking deputy, rankling some of his fellow Democrats and not a few Republicans, who already considered their colleague a RINO — Republican in Name Only. If it rankled Bisbee, it didn’t show much.
It showed, however, at the end of the 2005 legislative session. Argue had campaigned earnestly for Bisbee to succeed him, and they and their bipartisan team were certain they had sufficient pledges, razor-close but a done deal. The deal came undone in the Senate secretary’s office when representatives of the two candidates counted the secret ballots. Bisbee fell short by one vote. Someone had reneged. Lied. Bisbee’s advocacy of school consolidation and the higher taxes to upgrade classrooms had alienated one too many conservatives of both parties, one of whom had broken his or her word to deny the Republican caucus its first pro tempore in longer than a century. Plainly stunned, Bisbee nonetheless took the floor to ask that the vote for Batesville’s Jack Critcher be made unanimous. And then took wife Linda to the movies.
Now he was sipping chardonnay, recalling the moments he truly savored, which were the endless hours that he and others who were devoted to policy beyond politics spent poring over three-inch thick budget proposals and taking testimony on the most arcane elements of state government.
“We loved it!” Bisbee exclaimed. “It was hard work, drive you crazy, but we loved it. The nitty-gritty of it, the small print of it, down where the rubber meets the road.”
Didn’t think your pet program, your local college campus, got its fair share? Why didn’t you get your fanny out of bed and get down to the Joint Budget Committee at 7 a.m. and fight for it, Bisbee would tell the whiners. (He didn’t say “fanny”).
Rex Nelson stopped by. Nelson was press secretary to Gov. Mike Huckabee, the Republican whose sweeping school consolidation program so impressed Argue that he abandoned his own plan and signed on. Opposition from rural legislators whittled its intended impact by 75 percent, though the effort was noble, and produced significant benefits.
A rural-urban conflict was what many education reform advocates feared in the early years of the previous decade, when Argue became Senate president and Rep. Bill Stovall of Heber Springs was chosen speaker. The two men had different agendas, it was observed. But they were serious men who took their jobs seriously; compromise was crafted and accommodation afforded. At session’s end an appreciative Argue directed the bulk of his discretionary appropriation to Stovall’s district, for education.
Stovall, naturally, came to honor the man who became his close friend, who inspired him; Stovall, whose lack of a college degree as a legislator prompted snots to stupendously underestimate him; Stovall, who today is working toward his Ph.D., who leads the association of Arkansas two-year colleges. Stovall, who, like everyone else present, had the weird idea that government might actually help people. What a quaint notion.
The hotel reception – pray that it wasn’t, after all, a wake.