Today's Paper Newsletters LEARNS Guide Fish Story Contest 🎣 Asa Hutchinson 2024 Today's Photos Public Notices Digital FAQ Razorback Sports Puzzles Crime Distribution Locations Obits

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Berry was the real deal

by John Brummett | May 23, 2023 at 4:32 a.m.

There really was such a thing as a "Blue Dog Democrat" espousing and living genuine cultural conservatism and advocating a genuine activist-government populism championing seniors, farmers and poor people.

He died Friday.

Former U.S. Rep. Marion Berry--a farmer, licensed pharmacist, Gillett coon-supper advocate/connoisseur and wholly authentic homespun country-talker and humorist--died at 80 after a decade or more of illness.

I never saw him do anything inauthentic save maybe that time he let his staff schedule a lunch with me at Brave New Restaurant. I love Brave New Restaurant. Lunch was exquisite. All meals there are. I'm just saying "exquisite" is no way to talk in the context of Marion Berry. He wasn't sea scallops, but raccoon.

In recent years, Berry's Gillett Coon Supper pre-party for anyone who was anyone in Arkansas politics--with proceeds going to Arkansas State scholarships--became as significant an event as the coon supper itself.

The venue was his barn. The attire was jeans and boots. The décor was farm equipment. The entryway was a long dirt road through farmland that, in the usual cold wet of January, could render the standard-issue mode of transportation, the pickup, splashed with rich Arkansas mud.

The food was flesh and fish and fowl and fried and smoked. The entertainment was a local country-western band.

The conversation was Asa Hutchinson telling you how mean you could be sometimes or Jason Rapert telling you he was certain that the Lord was going to grab you someday by the hair of your head and bring that Church of Christ upbringing back to the forefront.

And this was Berry politically, also authentically: He opposed abortion and voted against Obamacare because he thought it didn't expressly deny federal funding for abortion. He railed for deficit reduction. But he railed as well for Medicare expansion, for Medicare drug-price negotiations, for Medicare re-importation of drugs and for farm subsidies.

He called me once after a column about the tragic cycle of Delta poverty to say, "Thanks for caring about the poor people."

On policy, he could join House Republicans from time to time. But, on politics, he was consistently a hyperpartisan lifelong Democrat who could regale a state Democratic Party audience with colorfully humorous storytelling and rip the hide off a Republican colleague who struck him as the two worst things--phony and silly.

Yes, Berry probably is most known for an indelicate breaking of U.S. House rules during one evening session in a fight over the budget when he pointed to a GOP colleague and described him as a "Howdy Doody-looking nimrod."

One should not make personal criticisms on the House floor. One should especially avoid couching those criticisms in physical appearance. But, seriously: Have you ever beheld a richer description? And it lost no richness even when I found out he was talking about someone other than Lindsey Graham, a Howdy Doody-looking nimrod.

It would be a cliché to write that Berry represented a lost art of policy moderation and happy-warrior partisanship, which he did, and that they don't make them like that anymore, which they don't.

Several years ago when the Republican takeover began post-Obamacare, young Republicans seemed to hold their most intense disdain for so-called Blue Dog Democrats. They, these Republicans alleged, were the biggest frauds of all in that they served their personal political purposes by espousing Republican-owned conservative positions while claiming nominal Democratic credentials only because Arkansas had long been a one-party Democratic state. They, these Republicans alleged, would reveal their Democratic bona fides in a crunch if Nancy Pelosi told them to do so.

They were right in some cases, but not so much in the case of Berry. He told me once that Pelosi was the smartest political operator he'd ever seen because of her vote-counting ability and her sense of when to press him and when to leave him alone.

Sometimes she left him alone, he said, when she had enough votes otherwise. Sometimes she left him alone, he said, because she knew he was a lost cause. All the while they maintained friendly relations that served both their interests. He assured me I'd like her if I really knew her.

For a while Berry achieved a little national Democratic prominence. Once he delivered the weekly Democratic radio address answering George W. Bush on Medicare. He managed not to call the president a Howdy Doody-looking nimrod.

Once he called to tell me that Howard Dean, then the national Democratic chairman, would be calling me momentarily to talk about gun laws. Dean soon did, mainly to impart that, as far as he was concerned, Vermont could have gun restrictions if it wanted and Arkansas could blow them off if it wanted.

Those were more hopeful times for Democrats ... doomed, but hopeful.

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: Berry was the real deal


Sponsor Content