Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

EDITORIAL>> Carl Whillock: true Arkansan

It was said of Carl S. Whillock that no Arkansan of the 20th century so unobtrusively but emphatically shaped so much of the public life of the state. Never a governor or senator himself, but a mentor of several, he could see his handiwork in the laws of the state, the growth of the universities and in the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of residents of the Arkansas countryside.

Were it not for the random remarks of George S. McGovern at a lecture at the College of the Ozarks last spring, we would never have known that Whillock was the father of a vast food-aid program to poor nations. It is safe to say that not one of the beneficiaries ever heard his name. McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, said he and Whillock, who was then a special assistant to President Clinton, were in a Roman cafe in 1998 when they sketched out the plan to use surplus American grain and commodities. Whillock returned and sold the president on the program.

Whillock collapsed and died on a supermarket parking lot at Little Rock Monday morning as, at the age of 79, he was preparing to enter still another of his overlapping careers, this one as a mediator. He had been a sailor, a minister, a businessman, a teacher, a state representative, a prosecuting attorney, a private attorney, a vice president of the University of Arkansas, the president of Arkansas State University, an adviser to a congressman and to governors and senators, the CEO of the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp. and a special assistant for agriculture and trade to the president of the United States.

He was an early confidante of Dale Bumpers, when the obscure lawyer from Franklin County made his storybook race for governor in 1970. He managed David Pryor’s campaign for governor four years later and then was his chief of staff after the inauguration. But he may have cast his largest shadow by being the man who made Bill Clinton.

Clinton, a young law instructor at the university, went to Whillock’s home in Fayetteville in January 1974 and asked what Whillock thought about his chances if he ran for Congress against the popular John Paul Hammerschmidt. Whillock, who had been the executive assistant to the liberal 11-term congressman from the district, Jim Trimble, loaded Clinton in his car a few weeks later and they traveled the backroads of the Ozarks meeting Democratic leaders in every town. That would form the nucleus of his political organization for the rest of his career. Clinton would sweep the Democratic nomination but lose the election, barely.

“He’s most important to me,” Clinton told the Arkansas legislature in 2001, “because the first trip I took out of Fayetteville, in the first race I ever made in 1974, was across the hills of north Arkansas with Carl Whillock, when only my mother thought I had any business in that race.”

We may experience his handiwork in these parts because in his 16 years as CEO of the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp. he stabilized its massive distribution network at a time of climbing energy costs. He collaborated with the co-ops’ old adversary, Arkansas Power and Light Co., on a coal-fired generating plant, and he built three hydroelectric plants on the Arkansas River, guaranteeing an abundance of cheap power to farms, rural residents and small towns. His negotiations with Nucor-Yamato brought a steel mill and hundreds of jobs to Mississippi County.

But we will miss this courtly, quiet and dignified man because he was an anachronism — a politician (yes, he was that) without swagger or rancor, who believed taxes should be fair to working people and more than an annoyance for the rich, and who did not believe in savaging and belittling your opponent. He considered running for governor several times — he may have been the best qualified man never to run for the office — but friends always talked him out of it, knowing that those quaint standards would leave him crucified in a modern election.

That sadly is the truth of it.