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Ed Bethune, who served the 2nd District of Arkansas in Congress from 1979-85, remembers well the summer of 1967 in Newark, N.J., when race riots left 26 people dead and hundreds injured. Bethune, an FBI agent from 1964-68, was stationed in Newark that summer. It was an eye-opening experience for someone from Arkansas.

I was interested in speaking with Bethune about the racial and political convulsions the country is experiencing in this summer of 2016, a summer some believe harkens back to the late 1960s. We had that discussion over breakfast in Little Rock last week.

I've always found Bethune--Marine, prosecutor, a Republican before it was cool in Arkansas, congressman, lawyer, lobbyist, Baltimore Oriole baseball fan--to be a fascinating figure. He's also a talented writer as evidenced by his first two books. His memoir, Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure, came out in 2011. The book revolved around a trip Bethune and his wife Lana took in 1990 aboard a 31-foot sloop named Salute. The goal was to sail from Norfolk, Va., to Portugal. In an incident that received widespread media attention, the couple was rescued by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters after withstanding rough seas for 36 hours prior to being spotted.

Soon after finishing Jackhammered, Bethune began outlining his first novel. The 2014 novel, Gay Panic in the Ozarks, begins with the lynching of a young gay man whose body is left hanging from a tree. The murder investigation goes nowhere. The book's protagonist is wracked by guilt that he didn't do more. Thirty-eight years later, he gets a second chance to confront what Bethune refers to as man's greatest vice, "the refusal to see wrong and do something about it."

Bethune's third book, which has just been released, is titled A Pearl for Kizzy. It's the story of a child who lives with her family on a houseboat in east Arkansas. The family--like many of the so-called river rats who once inhabited houseboats on the Black, White and Cache rivers--survived through commercial fishing and gathering mussels. Family members would look for freshwater pearls in the mussels and then sell the shells to button factories.

In the book, Kizzy becomes friends at the start of World War II with a boy who's a refugee from Nazi Germany. The book tackles various prejudices, sexual abuse and even the subject of eugenics. A party celebrating the release of A Pearl for Kizzy will be held Friday at Pocahontas. The event will take place on the downtown square at the Randolph County Heritage Museum.

"I owe so much to Pocahontas," Bethune says. "I probably would have wound up in prison if not for the people there."

Bethune's parents divorced when he was 8. He's quick to admit that he often found himself in trouble during his formative years in Little Rock. He was sent to his mother's hometown of Pocahontas and graduated from Pocahontas High School in 1953. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps, served three years and then met his wife Lana when both were students at what was then Little Rock Junior College and is now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Ed was 23 and Lana, the daughter of famous Arkansas Democrat state Capitol reporter George Douthit, was 21 when they were married.

Ed Bethune went on to earn a business degree and a law degree from the University of Arkansas. He was a deputy prosecuting attorney in Randolph County in 1963-64 before joining the FBI. After leaving the bureau, he began practicing law at Searcy. He ran for attorney general in 1972, losing to Democrat Jim Guy Tucker. Bethune shocked the state's political establishment six years later when he was elected to Congress. He served three terms in the U.S. House and lost a 1984 race against U.S. Sen. David Pryor.

Bethune was chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1986-88. He and his wife returned to Washington following George H.W. Bush's election as president in 1988 so Lana could become the social secretary for Vice President Dan Quayle. Ed Bethune, meanwhile, became the go-to man for Republicans who found themselves in hot water, ranging from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Ed and Lana Bethune returned to Arkansas in 2009, and Ed began writing.

"I write about prejudice and the great American struggle to make the most of our differences," he says. He calls becoming a novelist "a case of necessity" since he found himself bored after his memoir came out.

"I needed something else to do," Bethune says. "The novels have given me a chance to write about my youth, the prejudices I've seen, the things I've learned. Even after the first novel came out, I discovered that I still wanted to write. When I was a boy in Pocahontas, I was fascinated by the river rats. I often wondered what it might be like to grow up on one of those houseboats out on the Black River." That fascination led to this book.

As Bethune wrote his first two books, he wouldn't let anyone see the manuscripts until they were finished. This time, he allowed Lana to read and offer suggestions each time he finished a chapter. He explains: "I was writing about a girl going through puberty. Obviously I never had that experience, so I needed Lana to see if the things I wrote rang true. The two things you'll find in each of my books are a Marine and a mule. The mule appears early in this one."

And, yes, Bethune says he's already at work on an outline for a third novel. At age 80, he shows no signs of slowing down.

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Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the director of corporate community relations for Simmons First National Corp. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 07/20/2016

Print Headline: A congressman's pearl

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