I'm mostly interested in the history-making people and their stories--in the lives and times of people like Harry Ashmore, Sid McMath, Orval Faubus, Winthrop Rockefeller and Dale Bumpers.
And I'm interested in the man writing about them--Ernest Dumas, a good, gentle and generous soul, now 81, who was the very embodiment of the late, great Arkansas Gazette in the years I spent there, indeed the greater number of years he spent as Capitol reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
Practically every newsroom employee of the Gazette in those days, from the late 1950s until 1991, had reason to consider Dumas his or her best friend. And he was.
That didn't mean we were all his best friend. It is not feasible to make a credible ranking amid such a multitude.
As I put it in introducing Dumas at a panel discussion a couple of years ago: "Everybody but me says Ernie is the leading political journalist of our time in Arkansas."
Later in that same panel discussion, I asked David Pryor how it felt when historians ranked the great governors of the state and invoked George Donaghey, McMath, Rockefeller and Bumpers, but never David. "Kinda the way you feel when everybody says Ernie is the best newspaperman of our time in Arkansas," Pryor replied.
As Dumas tells it, this new book, put out by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System, came about because former library director Bobby Roberts commanded him to stop telling and retelling his stories long enough to get them written for posterity before he forgot them.
The book is titled The Education of Ernie Dumas and the author is identified as "Ernest Dumas." That seems right. As a writer and journalist, Dumas has always had a seriousness, a modest formality, an essence as "Ernest" and "earnest." He wrote columns without ever referring to himself. On the other hand, there was a local columnist who made his debut in 1986 and, within weeks, found his "I" key faded and sticking.
But to watch a Hog basketball game with Dumas, or vacation with him in Northern Ireland and ride shotgun as he takes narrow curves sideways, or chat him up at the neighborhood grocery store or coffee shop, or deliver your Gazette oral history to his questioning in his living room, is to hang with "Ernie."
So, to some of the book's stories about the aforementioned lives and times:
• Harry Ashmore was the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for the Gazette who bravely and historically advocated moderate, law-abiding integration at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Sid McMath was the war hero from Hot Springs who returned as a home-state reformer and would have launched a progressive era in Arkansas from his governorship in 1949-53 except for the interruption of Orval Faubus and international disgrace.
Here's how Dumas introduces Ashmore and McMath on Page 31: "A South Carolinian with the educated aristocrat's preference for gradual and dignified evolution, Ashmore like many other Southerners had his conscience pricked on the battlefields of World War II. He was an infantry colonel in George Patton's Third Army and came home from Europe imbued with the idea that the greatest flaw in American democracy, particularly in the citadel of the Confederacy where he was reared, had somehow to be fixed. A U.S. Marine hero in the Pacific, Colonel Sidney McMath, came home to Arkansas similarly impassioned. Ashmore and McMath, by then the governor, became good friends, and, in 1951, McMath had Ashmore address the Southern governors at a conference in Little Rock on their obligations to embrace or protect, as a matter of observing the rule of law, the civil rights that before long were certain to be coming through the courts."
• Can you imagine Faubus as a lonely conflicted politician beset with apprehension and physically harmful stress? Well, you should, writes Dumas, on Page 45. "For a while, in the winter of 1961-62, Faubus toyed with the idea of retirement, or at least a respite from politics and the unrelenting anxiety of governing, which are particularly vexing when you have no one, not even a family member, with whom you care to share your misgivings, regrets or apprehensions."
• Of Rockefeller, Dumas writes on Page 92 of the richest of ironies, with "richest" applying in more ways than one: "It is safe to say that not a dozen Arkansawyers knew what they were getting when they voted in the fall of 1966 to make Winthrop Rockefeller their governor, nor were many more of them sure of it when the experiment ended four years later and the heartbroken man, then only 60 years old, left the state Capitol to grieve the final miscarriage of his dreams. Twenty-five months later, he was dead. Rockefeller would remain--perhaps always will remain--the most liberal governor in Arkansas history, and by any definition of the word, among the most liberal in American history."
• And of the charismatic rise of Dale Bumpers, whom Dumas adored, Ernie relates a wealth of insight but never with greater relevance than in explaining that Bumpers' flair for sometimes-edgy humor deflected detraction and helped propel him from obscurity in 1970. Here's the single best example, on Page 134: In trouble in the Democratic runoff against the rising phenom Bumpers, and knowing it, Faubus called a news conference to say he'd been told he'd be assassinated in six months if elected, but that he would bravely persist. That evening in Pine Bluff, at an appearance he shared with Faubus, Bumpers took the microphone and encouraged everyone to vote for him to save Orval's life. The crowd of railroad workers, thought to be Faubus supporters, roared in laughter. Faubus abandoned the supposed threat as any kind of talking point.
On Monday evening, Dumas was a rock star drawing a big crowd of Little Rock's celebration-ravenous progressive community to the Ron Robinson Theater. The auditorium overflowed. The book-signing line was still so long when it came time for Dumas to speak that the people left in line were given numbers for reassembling after the presentation.
Dumas told great stories--of course--in his presentation for the delighted crowd. But he closed in a way that was, in part, good hyperbolic fun and, in part, serious and quite nearly profound.
He said the book had a thread, a theme, if you looked hard enough. It's that the great Arkansas feud between the Stephens family and Sheffield Nelson, dating at least to 1978, led to Nelson having a New York Times reporter to whom he leaked and the Stephenses having a New York Times reporter who tried to help them deflect what Nelson was leaking to the other.
The long and short of the meandering saga, Ernie explained, is that Sheffield Nelson's leaking to his reporter led to the first Whitewater stories in The Times in 1992 about then-candidate for president Bill Clinton's inconsequentially failed little land deal.
And that, you see, led to Clinton's impeachment on something else entirely and such a lasting smearing of Hillary that she lost even to Donald Trump, which led to the demise of the Atlantic alliance, official disregard for global warming, the full decline of civil discourse and the end of Western civilization as we know it.
"It's all right here," Dumas said, pointing to his book.
Lest anyone think him boastful, he said his presentation of the theme was so disjointed and dense that no one would detect it.
But it's laid out quite clearly, from Page 352 until the end of the book.
You can get the book through the Butler Center or at Wordsworth Books in Little Rock or through Amazon, and elsewhere no doubt.
And a postscript: For the last few months, Dumas has been working with an old and once-bitter rival, the publisher of the Democrat-Gazette, Walter Hussman, on this year's commemoration of the Gazette's founding 200 years ago.
Hussman told me Dumas was the obvious person to whom he reached out as a bridge to the old Gazette. He said their first meeting lasted a couple of hours.
"He told a lot of great stories, and I just listened," Hussman said, which describes any Ernie Dumas conversation.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
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