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GREG HARTON: History by any name intriguing

by Greg Harton | January 31, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

The entry of Sarah Huckabee Sanders into the Arkansas governor's race last week gave me flashbacks of Arkansas political history as far back as 1978.

That was about four years before Sanders, former spokesman for President Trump, was born to a preacher in Hope, Ark., named Mike Huckabee, who in 1992 went from pulpit to politics by challenging U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. He might not have made that run except that Asa Hutchinson, who'd run against Bumpers six years earlier but lost, decided against a rematch.

Hutchinson, now Arkansas' governor, was co-chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party in the early 1990s.

It might be said that Mike Huckabee's first political victory in Arkansas can be credited to Bill Clinton, also a native of Hope born about nine years before Huckabee.

In 1992, Bill Clinton got himself elected as the nation's 42nd president and the only one so far from Arkansas. The lieutenant governor at the time was Clinton's fellow Democrat, Jim Guy Tucker. As Tucker ascended to become the state's 43rd governor, Asa Hutchinson and others encouraged Mike Huckabee to run in the special 1993 election to fill the mostly forgettable post of lieutenant governor.

Being lieutenant governor is a lot like being vice president of the United States. John Adams, the first person to serve as vice president, referred to the office as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

But, of course, we now know that's not entirely true. Just consider Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman and six other vice presidents.

But back to Huckabee, who won that special election by a slim margin and was re-elected lieutenant governor in 1994. By 1996, a little land deal in Arkansas called Whitewater had led to federal investigations of President Clinton and his wife, Hillary. Neither were prosecuted, but several Arkansans were. One person caught up in the investigation was Jim Guy Tucker, who was convicted in 1996 of conspiracy and mail fraud.

Tucker announced plans to resign as governor. Then he later sparked one of the most dramatic days in Arkansas political history by declaring he was rethinking his resignation even as lawmakers and others gathered for Mike Huckabee's swearing in. A tense standoff followed, including talk among state lawmakers of impeaching Tucker. After a few hours, Tucker relented. Huckabee served as governor for 10 years, earning national stature in conservative Republican circles and making Arkansas proud with a turn on "The Tonight Show" yukking it up about living in a mobile home while the Governor's Mansion was renovated. Cue the stereotypes.

Mike Huckabee made a strong run for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 and tried again in 2016 without much success.

It's with all that history that we can understand why Sarah Sanders is campaigning as Sarah Huckabee Sanders, which takes me back to 1978 when Bill Clinton made his first run for governor. Clinton's wife, Hillary, was skewered by Clinton's Democratic opponent because she chose to go by her maiden name, Hillary Rodham. Though heavily Democratic, Arkansas was nonetheless pretty conservative, and there wasn't much room for what some considered radical feminism.

Clinton lost the governorship in 1980 to Republican Frank White, but gained it back two years later. By that campaign, Hillary Rodham had become Hillary Clinton as she declared to Bill "This is stupid. We shouldn't lose the election over this issue."

Now, 39 years later, with Arkansas more Republican red than ever, sticking with a maiden name won't cause much of a ruckus at all. It's good marketing, after all.

I guess that's what they call progress.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

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