Ballot Box

Don’t Cry for Me, Arkansas

The Guilty Indulgence State.

Wednesday afternoon, I meet Mark Pryor, the attorney general of Arkansas, outside a candidates’ forum at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Pryor is the Democratic challenger to Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson, who addressed the group half an hour earlier. Hutchinson is built like a shortstop. He’s slight, quick, and energetic. He squints and blinks a lot. His eyes are gentle; his grin is tentative. He looks like the nice guy who doesn’t get the girl—except he did.

Pryor is built like a slugger. He has the deep-set eyes of his father, former Sen. David Pryor, but unlike his dad, he’s beefy and thick-necked. He moves slowly and hits hard. His voice is silky, and he likes to touch people. Politically, however, he’s a predator. He seldom blinks. He keeps his eyes on the person to whom he’s speaking as he swings through the pitch. He makes it look easy.

Pryor complains a lot, to this crowd and others, about dirty Republican tactics. But don’t cry for him. While both candidates in this race are likable, Hutchinson is the more straightforward. Pryor isn’t dishonest; he’s just sly. In the South, the line between deception and diplomacy is often thin. First Pryor tells the Fort Smith crowd he didn’t hear Hutchinson’s speech, then he quotes from it. He tells reporters he ducked a speaking invitation because of a “scheduling conflict,” then he says it would have been ethically awkward. When asked why he uses the same campaign signs his father used—and leaves his first name off them, allowing people to think they’re voting for his dad—he says first names are unnecessary. Come on.

Pryor is the more natural aggressor. The first time they debated, Pryor shook Hutchinson’s hand so hard the senator stumbled. Officially, Pryor pledges never to make an issue of Hutchinson’s personal life. (The senator divorced his wife three years ago and then married a former aide.) Unofficially, Pryor milks it all the time. He puts his wife in TV ads, mentions her in debates, and often says Hutchinson has “changed.” When asked what this means, he points to Hutchinson’s record on education and Social Security. No dice. You can disagree with Hutchinson’s votes on those issues, but you can’t say he’s changed. We all know what Pryor is talking about.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has written that pinning down Pryor on abortion is like nailing Jell-O to a wall. Now I know what that feels like. Pryor’s standard answer is that women should have a choice in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life. Outside the forum in Fort Smith, I ask him whether women should have a choice in other cases. He replies that he’s “personally opposed” to abortion. I ask whether that means he’d ban abortion. He says he’d “balance [his] personal beliefs” with his public responsibilities. Does that mean he’d let women have the right to abortion? He answers, “They do right now.”

The game goes on. Lois Romano, the Washington Post reporter standing next to me, asks whether women should have that right. Pryor says a lot of Arkansans want Roe v. Wade overturned. So he’d vote to overturn Roe? Not necessarily. He wonders how an abortion ban would be implemented. He says people are conflicted about whether to criminalize the procedure. “To me, it is a very personal decision,” he says. So women should get to make the decision? He doesn’t answer. “I’ll listen to both sides,” he says. Exasperated, I ask whether I can put him down as undecided. To that, he has a firm answer: No.

As Pryor leaves to go tape an infomercial, I ask whether I can tag along. Pryor’s press secretary stares at me. “Are you through with the abortion questions?” he asks.

The radio station, not far from campus, is called KISR. It has cheap carpet, sagging floors, graffiti on the walls, and plaster missing from the ceiling. It looks like a frat house. In fact, it was a frat house. A bleached-blond dude in shades, baggy jeans, and a leather jacket wanders out to tell me so. He’s wearing a goatee and smoking a cigarette. The infomercial turns out to be batting practice. Pryor answers a series of softball questions posed by a mock host. Occasionally, the host pauses to explain what will be spliced in. “Now there’s going to be a caller,” he tells Pryor. “It’s Bubba: ‘What about the minimum wage?’ Say, ‘Thank you, caller,’ ” says the host. “Thank you, caller,” says Pryor.

Thursday morning, Pryor shows up in Fayetteville, an hour to the north, to slam Hutchinson on Social Security. The venue is Uncle Gaylord’s, a garage-turned-restaurant. Two camera crews are on hand. This is the town where Pryor was born. He’s introduced by the doctor who delivered him. I’m sitting with a little old lady in big glasses and a plaid jacket. She plans to vote for Pryor. “He’s honest and religious,” she says. She likes his abortion non-position. She figures he’s just like her: He thinks the procedure is “wrong,” but he’ll do whatever the people want, which is probably to keep it legal.

This seems to be what northwest Arkansas is all about: believing things are wrong but doing them anyway. Or to put it the other way: atoning for your sins by feeling crummy about them. Take Hutchinson’s divorce. He says it’s made him “less judgmental,” but he hasn’t changed any of his judgments on family issues. The old lady at Uncle Gaylord’s remembers that in the days of the poll tax, the local Democratic machine paid the tax on behalf of poor people so they could vote. “That wasn’t really legal, but we did it,” she confides. But wasn’t it moral in a higher sense? She stares at me, aghast. “That’s cheatin’!” she says.

“I didn’t come here today to talk about my opponent,” Pryor tells the crowd. “But let me take the opportunity to do so.” At another point, he gestures to a plate in front of him. “If y’all see me make a move for these chocolate chip cookies, y’all wrestle me to the ground.” Everyone laughs, sharing the contemplation of guilty pleasure.

Pryor is followed to the mike by Bill Halter, an Arkansan who used to run the Social Security Administration. Halter recites three questions he says Hutchinson has failed to answer about the program. The first is how the senator would make up the $1.3 trillion he’d take out of the trust fund for privatization. The second is how he’d stop the fund from running out 14 years earlier due to privatization. I’m confused. After the speech, I approach Halter and ask him about those two questions: Aren’t they the same? He grins. Bad, bad boy.