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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Sarah shuns beloved writer

by John Brummett | March 2, 2023 at 2:57 a.m.

There is simmering unpleasantness heretofore unfolding outside this newspaper's pages.

I refer to the so-far one-way feud between a prominent and popular insider in the Mike Huckabee gubernatorial administration and the new gubernatorial administration of Huckabee's daughter, Sarah Sanders.

I refer to Rex Nelson, now a state icon as a columnist for this newspaper on Arkansas history, culture and politics. He also is a celebrity with David Bazzel-rivaling ubiquity as a master of ceremonies and event speaker.

An experienced newspaper and radio hand from late childhood, indeed the voice of the Ouachita Baptist Tigers, Nelson was Huckabee's communications and policy director and his campaign manager in the victory over Bill Bristow in 1998.

Lately he has taken to his Rex Nelson's Southern Fried Blog to assail a blundering Sanders and her arrogant staff of "Traveling Trumpettes" for treating the governor's office as a national fundraising forum while allegedly blackballing or restricting access of Arkansas journalists. Insiders have found Rex's take interesting either as spectator sport or as an indication of a larger failing of the new governor and her team.

Nelson has now made five blog posts on the theme, and may soon take that theme to his column in the newspaper.

The news pages of this paper have not yet published any article on the personal-blog offensive. But I'm picking up that the matter is being looked into by the newsroom.

It's not an easy terrain to negotiate: your star columnist against your new governor.

To summarize Nelson's theme: He writes of having old-friend state agency officials tell him, in the context of his inquiries in pursuit of columns he intended or at least expected to be positive, that the governor's office had directed that it had to approve media interactions. In one case, Nelson was told he was particularly to be shunned because he had been critical of the governor.

That would be troublingly authoritarian, paranoid or punitive.

Sanders' director of communications, Alexa Henning, perhaps one of Rex's "Traveling Trumpettes," replied very simply to my Twitter posting of Rex's first blog entry titled "Blackballed." She wrote, "This is wrong."

My attempts to get elaboration have been unheeded. I think I've been blackballed by Sanders and her people on general principles ever since I wrote the truth that her campaign demagoguery about resisting the federal government was reminiscent of Orval Faubus in the racial crisis in Little Rock in 1957.

But I'm not an old family friend, or an old campaign manager, or a beloved writer of an oft-positive column like Rex's that, among other things, frequently devours and promotes the state's history and culture.

It irks me to say that I suspect Rex's column is the most valuable staple in the paper.

And let's face it: Sarah comes honestly by any boulder on her shoulder. Her dad and mom are famously huffy, which is not to say they deserved the nicknames I once used: Wide Body for dad and Jethrine for mom. But I must say neither dad nor mom blackballed me. They hissed, but they didn't bite. They had a pro as communications director. Rex Nelson, I mean.

Let me make clear that I spoke with a couple of reporters last week who said, Rex's situation aside, they'd had no trouble getting in touch with state officials.

It may be that, whatever the governor's office is doing, it is mostly targeted toward critics. Nelson, a moderate Republican himself who disdains the new extreme-right version of conservatism, became a critic in the campaign. He wrote of finding Sanders too Trumpian and too closed-off and unresponsive.

We need this broader context: It is now widely common for Republican politicians to blow off traditional media critics. Their base loves it.

Sanders is a master of contemporary Republican messaging and tactics.

Speaking of things it hurts me to say, Arkansas politics is forever changed in that Sanders can now reach more Arkansas voters by going on Fox than investing much time in dinosaurs at the state newspaper.

When I asked Rex whether he thought that was a relevant perspective, he replied, "I think it is entirely punitive, a way for the governor's office to strike back at opinion writers who don't follow what they consider the party line. I've never seen anything quite like it in all my years of following, writing about and working in state government. I do know [that] people in various departments and agencies are upset at the political meddling because they have told me so."

This interesting dust-up may come down less to blackballing of local media people generally than to hurt feelings and resentment toward an old friend in Rex and to hatred of--or, worse, vague indifference toward--a cranky left-of-center curmudgeon like me.

I hope that's all it is and that the governor and her "Traveling Trumpettes" can mend fences.

With Rex, I mean. The other guy is not so much complaining as explaining.

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.

Print Headline: Sarah shuns beloved writer


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