BuzzFlash Interviews Gene Lyons: Part II
January 22, 2002
INTERVIEWS THE INIMITABLE GENE LYONS
In the eight boom economic years of the Clinton administration, we learned that the Republican party attempts to gain power through character assassination when it cannot win on the issues. Since they can't win on the issues in almost any national election, that means a permanent state of election by smearing the opponent and seizing the investigative apparatus of government for witch hunts. We learned that from 1992-2000, but we also learned that Arkansas is a pretty strange political state.
BuzzFlash received such a positive response to its first interview with Gene Lyons back in November, we returned to talk with him about politics in the razorback state.
We're reprinting our introduction to his November interview, followed by our latest 2002 conversation with Gene Lyons.
"Recently BuzzFlash was delighted to interview one of our journalist heroes, Gene Lyons, co-author of "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Campaign," which documented the decade-long right wing campaign to undermine democracy by removing a duly elected president. (The book, co-written by Joe Conason, will shortly be made into a film.) Lyons is also a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where, despite the name of the newspaper, he is apparently the token dissenter in a generally Republican booster club.
Although you have to register with the Democrat-Gazette to read Lyons' columns, it is well-worth the effort. This a man who takes no prisoners among Republican officials and hypocrites. Fortunately, for him, it's pretty much a 2-for-1 proposition, given the current leadership of the Grand Hypocrisy Party (GHP) in Arkansas and elsewhere in the country. Lyons has been known to point out the shortcomings of a Democrat or two, but usually it's for their timidity, not their hypocrisy."
BUZZFLASH: To most of the non-Arkansas world, and certainly through the Clinton years, Arkansas politics looked like the Hatfields and the McCoys. In fact, reading through your book, The Hunting of the President, it seemed that these blood feuds went on for years with this hatred that was hard to fathom.
GENE LYONS: Oh, I still find it hard to fathom!
BUZZFLASH: Is it just that Arkansas is a small state where people are so close that when they do get in their feuds, they're in each other's face every day?
GENE LYONS: Well, I think there are a whole lot of factors that make Arkansas politics silly. First, until quite recently, it was a one party state, a museum version of the "Solid South" of yore. Disputes tended to be more personal than doctrinal. Frankly, our educational level is among the lowest in the country. We have a tremendous population of semi-literate people who don't pay a lot of attention.
I was talking to a very high-minded friend who was talking about running for public office. I asked him "are you willing to go as low as you need to go? Are you willing to get right down into the mud and grapple?" That's what Arkansas politics is all about.
Arkansas has got one real city, Little Rock, which is smack in the middle of the state. It's also the state capital. It's where one of the two law schools are, where the medical school is, where the newspapers and TV stations are. It's not a big city. It's only 300,000. You do get to meet almost everybody if you're interested in it. So yeah, people do rub up against one another constantly, and feuds aren't forgotten.
Another aspect of it, geographically, shoot, even geologically speaking, is that Arkansas is a border state. The border between the Union and the Confederacy, and between east and west. I have a friend named Bob Lancaster, a terrific writer and columnist, who says there is no Arkansas. Just West Mississippi, East Oklahoma, Northeast Texas, North Louisiana and the Ozark Mountains. The fault line between the lowland, row-crop, slave-owning South of the Arkansas Delta and the upland, mountain South of the Ozarks runs right through Little Rock. I know a woman from Cleburne County in the hill country who says the only advice her mother gave her before she went off to the university was not to date boys from the Delta, whom she considered charming but immoral by definition-tainted by slavery.
I think the watershed event in contemporary Arkansas politics remains the Central High integration crisis in 1957, which bitterly divided people, even in families. It was like some bloodless version of a Civil War. It was one of those events in which what people did then and what they said then, and what position they took, has never been forgotten. And it's slowly dying out. I think it's almost gone now from public consciousness just because you'd have to be over 50 to remember it. But that started it all. I know at least two pairs of brothers who SCARCELY talk to each other even to this day over taking different sides at that time.
I will say this, it's the funniest place I've ever lived. There's also a very strong sense of place and local patriotism, which you can sense just watching the Razorbacks on TV. Two years ago my wife and I were in New York in connection with Joe Conason's and my book. We turned on the TV in our hotel room, and there was the Razorback basketball team playing in the S.E.C. championship game, which wasn't supposed to happen. We watched every second of it, and when the Hogs won, we both got teary-eyed. Watching the team in Manhattan, it was as if our sons were on the team. Actually, they were both in Fayetteville, also glued to the TV. Maybe I should say that besides being a native Arkansan, my wife is also a coach's daughter. Her Dad's best player was Brooks Robinson, the hall of fame third-baseman.
BUZZFLASH: In your book you talk about a guy who owned a bait shop, who helped launch a conspiracy to bring down the President of the United States.
GENE LYONS: Yeah, that's the kind of thing I mean. Just crazy, jagged, silly things seem to happen with enormous regularity here. Even crazier, the bait shop guy and I have mutual acquaintances I might even call friends. Also people well known to some of the anti-Clinton "investigators" that worked for them. I always wondered if that was how come I never got investigated myself, like other journalists they didn't like. It was kind of like not making Nixon's enemies list. Of course I've never been divorced. They went after the others through ex-wives. It was amateur night in Dixie, as they say. About what you'd expect in a bait shop conspiracy.
BUZZFLASH: Tell us a bit about GOP Arkansas Governor Huckabee in his pardoning of a guy named Wayne Dumond.
GENE LYONS: Dumond was convicted of raping a young 16 year-old girl who had the misfortune of being a distant cousin of Bill Clinton's. And for that reason, the right-wing became obsessed with the idea that Dumond was framed. What made the case front page news was that in between his arrest and his conviction, somebody castrated him. Actually, the state police think he did it himself, apparently not as uncommon as you'd think - and the local sheriff, infamous for tolerating illegal gambling and bootlegging in his country, kept Dumond's testicles in a formaldehyde jar on his desk. It's grotesque. Things like that happen, and you feel like you're living in the Middle Ages. Or a Flannery O'Connor tale anyway.
BUZZFLASH: Wasn't, Huckabee lobbied to argue for Dumond's commutation? Eventually Dumond was commuted, then Dumond went out and killed someone, right?
GENE LYONS: That's correct. He came into office promising to pardon him. It was then the girl's father and some law enforcement people said wait a minute now, you need to think about this more. The evidence in the case was very strong. The simplest way the prosecutor had of explaining it to me was this: What do you think the chances are that this little girl who was held at knifepoint for hours by this guy, then runs into him on the street weeks later after he had shaved his beard off, and she says "Oh my God that's him. There he is! That's the guy that did it!" What do you think the odds are she picked out a guy with a long list of assaults and sexual offenses just off the street? I mean, if you're going to portray him as an innocent flower, shouldn't you look at his rap sheet? Wouldn't that be one of the things that would influence your judgment on this case, Governor Huckabee? But he had never done that, and he never read the transcript of the trial.
BUZZFLASH: Well Dumond was subsequently freed and he killed someone else right?
GENE LYONS: He's been formally charged in one murder in Kansas City, and he's under suspicion in another one. He's going on trial pretty soon in Kansas City. Now ordinarily, that would have been the end of Huckabee.
BUZZFLASH: Well certainly a Democrat couldn't survive from something like that.
GENE LYONS: Huckabee's strategy was just to flat out lie about it. "Well, you know, I had nothing to do with that. That was somebody else's fault. It wasn't mine."
Amazingly, the newspaper that I WRITE for was going to let him get away with it. I just called the library and said would you please forward me all the stories from such and such a date. And I wrote a column about Huckabee'S stating he didn't have anything to do with commuting a rapist who went out and killed again. And then all off a sudden the news department started doing what they should have been doing a week or more earlier - comparing Huckabee's alibis to his earlier statements and actions. I'm not sure if they would have done that if I hadn't written that column.
If Huckabee was a Democrat, believe me, it would be the only news story in Arkansas. It would have already sucked the life out of the guy. He'd be finished. Can you imagine if Clinton had done something like that?
BUZZFLASH: The contrast is that the Democrats don't make an issue of it. They just let it drop, and the Republicans hang onto it like a junkyard dog.
GENE LYONS: I was saying to my high-minded friend, if your guy wants to get into the gubernatorial race, he should first latch onto this issue like a dog to a bone and not let go of it. Use it as a platform. Because if you want to talk about what's wrong with our Republican Governor, Mike Huckabee, that's the first place you start. He goes off halfcocked without knowing what he's doing, screws things up, denies it, then whines that people are picking on him.
BUZZFLASH: Now how did Huckabee get the nickname triple wide?
GENE LYONS: He's a very heavy guy. I mean he's very much overweight. And at one point people think he was taking Phen-fen. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight right after he became governor and has put it all back on.
The other reason that he's called that is the governor's mansion is being renovated at his wife's insistence. While it's going on, the mobile home industry donated him a triple-wide mobile home and put it in on the grounds of the governor's mansion. So he and his wife are living in a mobile home, which again, is only in Arkansas.
It was a brilliant political stroke by him. He's very adept politically because he's a very smooth, affable guy. And a tremendous number of people live in mobile homes in Arkansas.
BUZZFLASH: It's got a Jacuzzi I'm sure.
GENE LYONS: I don't want to sound like a shill for the manufactured housing industry, but it's not what people think of when they think of a trailer park. It's a lot nicer than that.
BUZZFLASH: Are there other hypocritical actions that Governor Huckabee has taken?
GENE LYONS: Money sticks to him. He takes a lot of gifts from people. There's one supporter in particular who gave him $20,000 worth of suits and he got caught charging pizza delivery, dog food and his wife's panty hose to the Governor's mansion account.
People don't care because they like him. And they like him because he's genial. He's a Baptist preacher by training, and he used to be a radio sports announcer among other things. He's very good with the media. He's very self-deprecating and glib. It's hard to hold anything against him. He got elected by not paying too much attention to the goals of the religious right, who supported him because they see him as a man of God. It's also important to say he's not a racist, and avoids coded racial appeals, unlike a lot of other Arkansas Republicans. He's not out crusading against gay rights. He's anti-abortion, but he's not doing anything about it other than lip service.
I can give you a perfect example which summarizes how clever Huckabee can be. The Arkansas State Baptist Convention, which is becoming increasingly conservative and dogmatic in recent years, has a history of just making sort of ludicrous and Falwellian pronouncements. Recently, they took a stand against Harry Potter. To the Fundamentalist Right, Harry Potter is about witchcraft and demonism, and therefore it's, deemed to be competitive with and threatening to the gospel. And they made a stand. They advised people not to take their kids to see the movie, not to buy the book, and stay away from stores that sold Harry Potter stuff. It took the Arkansas Times a week to get Huckabee to comment about it. And his comment was, "Oh, I just think the Baptists should spend less time talking about Harry Potter and more time talking about Jesus." Only sectarian hotheads could argue with that, and they'd end up looking foolish. He does disarming things like that, and it makes it very difficult to pin him down.
Like everybody else, we're having a terrible budget crisis, and there have been some suggestions that we've got to find some money somewhere. Huckabee has cut teacher pay raises that he promised. The Republicans cut a very popular program called the Governor's scholarships in which the state paid full tuition and fees for any student over a certain grade point and test scores. They were very helpful to lots of students to go to college who otherwise couldn't. They're also cutting into Medicare and Medicaid. They're even cutting into programs that generate federal matching funds on a three to one basis. Huckabee's plan hurts education, libraries, and the poorest and most disabled persons in Arkansas. Some people said, "We should be able to raise a tax somewhere." Well he went on TV and sort of tongue-in-cheek said I'm starting a fund for anybody that wants to pay more taxes. Here's the address." He calls it the "Tax Me More Fund." Lately, parents of disabled kids have taken to delivering buckets filled with pennies to his office -- that kind of thing. Overall though, it seems to have helped him.
BUZZFLASH: Two questions before we close, non-Arkansas related. The American Spectator went belly-up. I mean, here was an obscure right wing publication that through funding by right-wingers and others, became a major source of rumor and innuendo . . .
GENE LYONS: Right.
BUZZFLASH: . . . To drive, in the end, an impeachment effort against the President of the United States.
GENE LYONS: Right.
BUZZFLASH: I mean, isn't that sort of amazing that can happen?
GENE LYONS: It's clear that the American Spectator was being funded by Scrooge McDuck and run by Gyro Gearloose. The latter is a more obscure Disney character -- Donald Duck's distant cousin, a goose who was a crackpot inventor. The American Spectator was a magazine funded by a crackpot, Richard Mellon Scaife, and run into the ground by another crackpot, Emmet Tyrell, for the express purpose of serving as a political weapon against the Clinton administration. And, it is amazing the influence they managed to wield.
BUZZFLASH: They took the trooper story and then that became the driving wedge to open the Paula Jones case. Which was then utilized when the Supreme Court said that it would not disrupt the people's business for a sitting president to be deposed . . .
GENE LYONS: Right
BUZZFLASH: . . . And that led to the impeachment charge.
GENE LYONS: In retrospect, it still amazes me. One of the things I was going to say is, the American Spectator and David Brock did one of the absolute journalist no-no's. They used paid sources. They went out and paid people. All the troopers got paid, not directly by Brock I should say, but he had a pretty good idea it was happening, he's admitted. The reason you don't do that as a journalist is pretty elementary. Once you start paying people for information, and passing it on uncritically, you give them an incentive to fabricate. And yet that was never really discussed, that the American Spectator was paying all of its sources. If you actually read the depositions in the Jones case, all of the Troopers except one guy, named Larry Patterson, said, "We never saw anything. It was al rumors and tall tales. We don't know what Clinton did with a woman when he had a meeting with her." To get the story, the American Spectator paid their sources for a story, any story. They seem to be the most gullible lot of gossips that the world ever conceived.
BUZZFLASH: What do you think of the Washington press corps?
GENE LYONS: You know, here in Arkansas, we're supposed to be the hicks. But you look at Washington through the eyes of the national media and everything is gossip and cliques, and who's in and who's out, and who likes who and who doesn't like who. If you take a step back and look at the media coverage in the last election you realize it's like The Breakfast Club. The coverage by the media was comparable to one of those crazy high school movies. The coverage was all about Al Gore's clothing, and whether or not he had dorky shoes, and whether or not he was cool. Basically the national press declared that Gore was a BRAINY dork who wouldn't do. And Bush was a cool kid. He was in the "in-crowd", and we needed him to be president. That was the level of the debate and how the presidential election was covered. In a funny way, while Arkansas politics is more colorful, I don't see the nation, or at least the national press, very far ahead of us.
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