Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 10)

Old State House Museum - Monday, May 13, 2019

While Richard Nixon’s popularity remained high in Arkansas after his 49-state reelection in 1972, the same was not true nationwide as the Watergate Scandal engulfed his presidency and, as the prospect of impeachment loomed, his resignation from office just 22 months after his epic triumph. His two successors were mostly unknown to Arkansans in the years leading up to their presidencies, and never developed the personal connections that Kennedy and Nixon had.

Gerald Rudolph Ford was without a doubt “Mr. Middle America.” Michigan born and bred, he not only was a star college football player but an assistant football coach at Yale after turning down offers in the National Football League. He gained a law degree, served in the navy in World War II in the Pacific, and settled in to a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rising to Minority Leader, Ford concluded that the long years of Democratic control of the lower chamber meant he would likely never achieve his goal of being Speaker, and he began to look toward retiring from Congress.

Yet events fast overtook Ford in 1973. First, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned that October after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges in a bribery scandal. For the first time, under the 25th Amendment, a President could fill the office by appointment, and did so by nominating Ford, who was confirmed by Congress and sworn in on December 6, 1973. As the Watergate scandal further swirled around Nixon, and facing impeachment, he resigned on August 9, 1974, and Ford ascended to the Presidency.

Outside of longtime Washington relationships and his own Michigan district, Ford was a relatively unknown quantity upon assuming the Presidency, especially in the Democratic-dominated South. But Ford was distrusted by many elements of the “New Right” that had driven Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” and he faced the looming challenge of Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination in 1976. He clearly needed to build a base of his own, and in the midst of this effort, Ford came to Arkansas on August 10, 1975 on a four-hour swing through the Fort Smith area. The two chief public purposes for the trip was to deliver a dedication address for the city’s new St. Edward Mercy Medical Center, and to visit the Vietnamese refugee relocation center at Fort Chaffee in nearby Barling. First arriving at the Fort Smith airport, Ford was met there by Governor David Pryor, whom he first met while both served in the House, and other dignitaries. The presidential party proceeded to the hospital, where Ford spoke to a crowd of over 2,500 people in 98-degree heat. Hospital administrator Sister Judith Marie Kieth mentioned that that she had been nervous early on but the event had become “like a carnival.” Ford proceeded on to Fort Chaffee to a warm welcome from the refugee residents and camp administrators, and then proceeded to attend a Republican Party reception before departing for his summer residence in Vail. Colorado. Ford would return to the state twice more after his presidency: on March 29, 1984 for an address at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, and less than two months later, on May 12 in Searcy to campaign for Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Ed Bethune.

Yet Ford’s election hopes were foiled by a southerner, Jimmy Carter. The son of a Georgia peanut farmer who graduated from Annapolis and worked on the nuclear submarine project, Carter returned home after his father’s death to turn an almost bankrupt farm into a multimillion-dollar operation. He would serve in the Georgia State Senate and as Governor as part of a trio of “New South” Democratic Governors elected in 1970 that included Florida’s Reubin Askew and Arkansas’s Dale Bumpers. Carter and Askew would run for President in time, but Bumpers passed. Carter’s first visit as a presidential candidate came on November 12, 1975 at a news conference at the Arkansas Democratic Party offices in Little Rock. Carter, who had declared his candidacy on December 12, 1974,was still part of a large field that sniffed victory as a weak economy and Reagan’s challenge to Ford hurt GOP prospects. In his remarks, though, Carter aimed his fire on fellow Democrat George Wallace, who was mounting his fourth and final bid for the Presidency. Carter would ultimately win the 1976 Arkansas primary, and Georgia’s “dark horse” candidate was on the march to the White House with a narrow victory in November over Ford, which included Arkansas. Carter’s presidency turned south quickly over mounting economic and foreign policy crises, and faced twin challenges in 1980 from Senator Ted Kennedy and ultimately, Ronald Reagan in November. Reagan’s popularity in the South, and Carter’s slumping poll numbers meant that states like Arkansas could no longer taken for granted, and he arrived in Texarkana on October 22, 1980. The rally there was a quad-state gathering, with Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana represented, and held on the steps of the Texarkana USA Post office that straddled the state line. When Carter approached the stage on the Arkansas side, the band played the Razorback fight song. When he crossed to the Texas side, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was played. However, the event could not stem the tide; Carter was buried in a 44-state landslide by Reagan, and all four states were on the Reagan Express.

In subsequent years, Carter was a more frequent visitor as an ex-President, most notably as the guest of ex-Senator Kaneaster Hodges beginning in 1983 and continuing for 14 the subsequent years until 1999 to duck hunt. He would arrive in Newport after attending church in his home in Plains, Georgia, and hunt with Hodges and his party on the Bayou de View near Weiner. Carter always found it to be one of his most enjoyable post-presidential activities, and indicative of the good will he still enjoyed even in the years after electoral defeat.