‘Remember Good Old Monroe Schwarzlose?’

An unusual editorial from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

That’s one of the questions posed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in its highly entertaining endorsement of John Boozman, the front-runner in today’s Republican primary for the Arkansas Senate. (The paper keeps its content behind a paywall, but you can read the whole thing on Boozman’s site.)

I, for one, did not remember the excellently named Mr. Schwarzlose, whom the editorial writer refers to as “the turkey farmer from Kingsland—no, outside Kingsland—who put such a scare into Bill Clinton?” But I am indebted to the Democrat-Gazette for bringing him to my attention. Apparently he was indeed an Arkansas turkey farmer who garnered 31 percent of the vote in the 1980 Democratic primary against the incumbent Clinton, who was later defeated in the general election. That tally represented a 30-fold increase on Schwarzlose’s showing in the 1978 primary; in the intervening two years he’d apparently become a vessel for anti-Clinton sentiment, which was partly driven, according to Wikipedia—caveat emptor!—by dissatisfaction over Hillary Rodham’s use of her maiden name for professional purposes.

Again citing Wikipedia, Schwarzlose managed this respectable performance on a campaign budget of only $4,000—“mostly for travel and for distributing home-canning recipes as campaign literature”—and a platform that included a promise, if elected, to turn over his farm for use as an orphanage. But for all the material this must have provided the press, he didn’t necessarily win their backing; an editor of the Arkansas Gazette reportedly remarked that “even Hee Haw gets tiresome on the third rerun.” (Schwarzlose first ran for office as a Republican candidate for Congress in 1974, a huge Democratic year.)

He did leave something of a legacy, though: Clinton refers to him three times in his memoir, including once as “my old nemesis, Monroe Schwarzlose.” More substantively, Bill Halter, this year’s challenger for the Democratic nomination for Senate, established his profile within the state by introducing a popular statewide lottery that supports college scholarships. Turns out good old Monroe Schwarzlose was pushing for a lottery in 1978! (Has Halter also been sneaking anti-Blanche Lincoln messages into Arkansas households via home-canning brochures? Seems like a subject for further reporting.)

Anyway, back to the editorial, which is well worth reading for a number of reasons besides the shout-out to Schwarzlose. For one thing, it offers proof that old-fashioned establishment conservatism, while out of style in the Breitbart era, still exists in some corners of the media. But the real entertainment is in the ruminations on the act of editorial writing and on the political culture in Arkansas, as well as the explanation for why Boozman is the choice. Here’s the opening:

FOR SOME time now we’ve been itching to write an endorsement editorial in a campaign season that, despite all the synthethic fuss-and-fustian of any campaign season, is proving as dull as an ice cream social in an old folks’ home.

Over the years we had just about resigned ourselves to churning out the kind of formulaic endorsements that are about as much fun as filling in an insurance form: “Our pick for (fill in the blank) is a solid citizen, conscientious husband/wife with a fine family who loves mom, pop and apple pie, a veteran of Army/Navy/Air Force/Marine Corps/Coast Guard who has a red-white-and-blue campaign sign, and has steadily proceeded up the political ladder from school board/city council/state legislature to become the clear choice in this race for (fill in the blank again).” Then end the thing with a -30- and a great big Yawn.

Maybe it’s just our imagination, or our nostalgia for a wasted youth spent covering eccentric candidates, but didn’t this state’s crop of candidates used to be more entertaining? Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end. Not in good ol’, fesity ol’, populist ol’ Arkinsaw.

Cue the bit about the turkey farmer. But it turns you can have too much of a good thing:

For when the eccentrics begin to outnumber the respectables, it’s hard for a newspaperman to maintain interest. It’s like watching a play with nothing but slapstick comics; you start looking not for comic relief but, please, just one serious, sober, even dull candidate. Just for the novelty of the thing. But in recent years there have been so many quite respectable—indeed, plodding—political candidates even in once colorful Arkansas that we’ve almost slept through some of the campaigns.

But then we took a long look at the congested field of candidates in the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. And realized where all the jokers, ideologues, loudmouths, know-nothings and ideological obsessives had been hiding. In this race they stood out like a red Holtmobile [ed.—Jim Holt is one of the insurgent conservatives running against Boozman in the GOP primary] with all lights flashing and horn honking. Which is what makes good old, dull old John Boozman so appealing a candidate this year.

THIS YEAR, the plain, reliable, and quite predictable congressman from the Third District stands out like a proper Rotarian in that little car at circuses which drives up packed with clowns in full make-up. What a relief to see a solid citizen in this nut-rich mix. Sure enough, even in this unruly crowd, there’s a doctor in the house. The congressman’s picture could be used to illustrate the entry Conservative, Moderate in any field guide to American politicians. He’s got all the characteristics of the dull gray species.

Boozman 2010: Plain, reliable, and quite predictable. Catch the fever!

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.