Mike Gauldin, the “unflappable” and incorrigibly witty press secretary for Bill Clinton during his years as Arkansas governor in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, died Thursday night after a battle with brain cancer, his friends said Friday.
He was 55.
Close buddies and colleagues alike remember Gauldin’s dry and almost wicked sense of humor, ability to remain cool under intense pressure and his propensity to sketch caricatures as personal gifts.
Gauldin was among the “Friends of Bill” who landed government jobs in Washington after Clinton was elected president in 1992.
“Mike operated under stress like nobody else,” recalled Betsey Wright, who served as Gov. Clinton’s chief of staff for nine years.
“Without a whimper, he accepted whatever impossible task he was handed, turned out a superior product, and delivered it with his trademark wit like a cherry on top,” said Wright, adding that Gauldin’s death is an emotional loss for her.
Clinton released a statement Friday evening on Gauldin calling him “a very good, very gifted man with a wonderful sense of humor.”
“All along the way, he kept us laughing with his cartoons and hilarious observations on people and politics. He faced his last battle with courage and grace, and he continued to grow ‘wiser’ right to the end,’” Clinton wrote.
Kathy Van Laningham worked with Gauldin in the governor’s office, with the two commiserating on many late nights during legislative sessions and other business.
Van Laningham, who along with her husband had first met Gauldin during the 1970s while the three were studying and working in Fayetteville, said Gauldin was someone you could count on.
“Someone who - has your back,” said an emotional Van Laningham, who was Clinton’s senior assistant for education from 1988-92.
“He was so talented, and so witty,” said Van Laningham, now vice provost for planning at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “And he was unflappable.”
In 1992, when Van Laningham left the governor’s office to take a job back in Fayetteville, as assistant to UA’s vicechancellor for academic affairs, Gauldin penned a caricature of her as a parting gift.
“It’s just me, between the Capitol dome on one side and the towersof Old Main on the other,” she said.
Her husband, Scott Van Laningham, said he worked with Gauldin in the late 1970s at the then-Springdale News - Gauldin as a copy editor, he as a reporter covering the city of Fayetteville. Van Laningham now runs Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Highfill.
They were all idealistic, and just starting out. The two men appeared together in roles during the local journalists’ Gridiron satirical revues. After Scott Van Laningham covered Fayetteville’s “sewage disposal saga” and was preparing to leave for a job with the Arkansas Gazette, Gauldin’s mischievous tribute was an outhouse he sculpted from popsicle sticks, suitable for display on a bookshelf.
Van Laningham, who calls Gauldin “Mike” and “Michael” interchangeably, said social networking allowed him to better keep up with Gauldin after he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago.
“Actually, Mike is the reason I have a Facebook page,” he said. “When the illness started, he posted updates.” Gauldin even posted a photo showing his large surgery scar on his page.
BORN IN MENA
Gauldin was born Nov. 13, 1954, in Mena, according to newspaper archives.
He was a U.S. Army information specialist from 1974-77. In 1981, he earned a bachelor’s in journalism from UA.
When the U.S. Geological Survey hired him in September 2007 as a public affairs officer, the agency said his background included 10 years as a journalist and cartoonist for several Arkansas newspapers in places that included Springdale and Russellville.
When he followed Clinton to Washington in 1992, he landed a job as a spokesman for the Interior Department.
Later, Gauldin slid a bit in the government structure, becoming communications chief for the Office of Surface Mining.
He said that didn’t bother him.
“When Bill Clinton finishedhis term as president,” Gauldin said, “I felt free, for the first time in about 15 years, to concentrate on what I wanted to do.”
He got into sculpting, among other things.
Kathy Van Laningham said one of his ventures was designing, copyrighting and selling “Native American action figures,” and selling them on an Internet store called Broken Spokes Mfg. According to the site, it includes a “Dog Soldier” line.
Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, said he concluded after his years of crossing professional paths with Gauldin that he was one of the most gifted people he’d ever met, and someone who enjoyed life immensely.
“He had such a great understanding of Arkansas politics, that you knew that when you saw one of his cartoons, it wasn’t just something he had read in the news. It was something he lived and experienced,” Rutherford said.
He was able to get his political cartoons published before and after his political career with Clinton.
“A really gifted political cartoonist as well as a journalist - but particularly a political cartoonist,” recalled Steve Clark, a former Arkansas attorney general during the Clinton gubernatorial era.
“I was the subject of one or two of his cartoons,” said Clark, now president and chief executive officer of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. “And you know a cartoonist is, well, they’re special people in the sense that they’re able to deliver a message with a picture, and he was one of the best.”
That said, he remembers Gauldin as a fine Arkansan and human being who will be sorely missed.
“Mike was a true gentleman,” Clark said.
Like the Van Laninghams, Bobby Roberts was among the tight-knit group of former Clinton aides and their friends who had annual reunions to keep in touch.
“I had kept up with Mike and his illness over the years,” said Roberts, now director of the Central Arkansas Library System.
“And Mike hadn’t been able to make it the last couple of years,” which Roberts figured was related to his health.
Information for this article was contributed by Bill Simmons of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.