• U.S.

Arkansas: Opportunity Regained

22 minute read
TIME

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Q. Whar’s this road go to?

A. I been livin’ here jer years, ‘n’ I ain’t seen it go no place.

—The Arkansas Traveler

In a part of the world that had gone no place since the Civil War, the directionless road of vaudevillian fame was far more apt as a symbol of Arkansas’ dead-end economic and political condition than as a sampling of Ozark humor. For all its majestic forests and fertile bottom lands, its bountiful natural resources and the Mississippi on its eastern frontier, the state remained for long decades a kind of limboland.

Arkansas has never been consistently Southern in temperament, despite its historic and geographic ties to the Old Confederacy; though it is more Western in the look of the land and its yield, the state has never embraced the West’s expansionist, assimilative outlook. Instead, in the eyes of the world it seemed aimlessly insular, obdurately independent—and comically backward. As then-Governor Charles Brough boasted 50 years ago: “You could build a wall around the state of Arkansas and its people would be self-sufficient.”

The trouble was—and is—that Arkansans have lived too long behind self-constructed walls of complacency, mediocrity and provincialism. Well into the 1950s, the state ranked at or near the bottom of virtually every index of progress, from literacy to average income to the number of dentists per capita. Though the legislature in the ’20s dubbed Arkansas the “Wonder State” and later more modestly renamed it the “Land of Opportunity,” by the early ’40s the brightest opportunity for young people moving off the farms lay in a one-way ticket to another state. Those who managed to get a good education found little reward for their learning back home; a competent technician could ask higher wages within half a day’s bus ride in almost any direction. State government was hampered at every level by an anachronistic constitution enacted in 1874, which, as Arkansans point out, was “two years before Custer’s last stand.”

Traumatic Aftermath. Then, in 1957, came a great blow to Arkansas’ backwater mentality. Dwight Eisenhower ordered U.S. paratroopers into Little Rock to resolve an unnecessary and uncharacteristic racial crisis over school integration. Overnight the ugly montage of shrieking segregationists, terrified Negro schoolchildren, and the dyspeptic protestations of Governor Orval Faubus became Arkansas’ image to the world. The psychological effect was traumatic. Having previously prided themselves on relatively good race relations, many Arkansans were deeply repelled by the picture that they presented in the unhappy aftermath of Little Rock. It took nearly a decade to germinate, but the seed of change was planted.

In the years since, much has altered in Arkansas—all for the better. A ground swell of technological advance, already under way in the late ’50s, has progressed to the point where industry now plays a major role in the economy, population is rising rather than shrinking, about 50% of the state’s 2,000,000 people now live in cities and towns, and an estimated 30% of the population is accounted for by in-migration.

For its economic and social transformation, Arkansas owes much to a transplanted Yankee whose surname—connoting vast wealth, liberal Republicanism and cosmopolitan interests—once seemed as alien to the state as fine champagne. Winthrop Rockefeller has not only devoted his time and fortune over the last 13 years to improving the quality of life in Arkansas. He has also succeeded almost singlehanded in renovating its political structure. His electoral victory in November was a historic event: he will become Arkansas’ first Republican Governor since 1874.

In paving the way for that achievement, Rockefeller served as financier, architect and mason of a two-party system more promising than any in the South. For if Republican successes across the nation last month constituted a renascence for the G.O.P., the party’s triumph in Arkansas was simply a nascency. And it was based squarely on the enlightened issues that Democratic politics had evaded for decades in Dixie. While his opponent, James (“Justice Jim”) Johnson, 42, inveighed against the “other” Johnson’s Great Society, Rockefeller talked about education, roads, governmental reform and accelerated economic progress for Arkansas.

Realistic Conservative. To be sure, the Southern Republicans have been on the march for years, but their principal successes have been in presidential elections—particularly 1964—rather than in state and local races. Moreover, many successful G.O.P. candidates in the South have battened on racism, as Southern Democrats have done for a century. In Arkansas, Rockefeller went the opposite way. While Jim Johnson churlishly refused even to shake hands with Negro voters, Rockefeller captured more than 80% of the Negro vote and appealed to moderate Democrats as well as to Republicans.

Johnson ranted that the Republicans would “seek new ways to force race mixing on the people.” Rockefeller labeled himself a “realistic conservative” and proclaimed: “Our party in Arkansas has not and will not become an arm of the right-wing crusade or of the other extreme.” His slogan: “Win with Win.” In the end, more than 54% of the voters decided to do just that. (He is particularly proud of his showing in school mock elections, in which students gave him 77%.) More significant for the Arkansas party’s future, the G.O.P. this year fielded 520 candidates —more Republicans than have run in all Arkansas elections combined since Reconstruction—and elected 163, or 31%. The other winners included the Lieutenant Governor, a Congressman, three state representatives, three judges, four sheriffs and a mayor.

Incentives. Rockefeller admits that all this has cost him millions—just how many millions he prefers not to say—as well as punishing physical exertion that can be calculated only by the fatigue etched in his broad face. His mission has not been entirely quixotic. Win Rockefeller, at 54, needs Arkansas as much as it needs him. Indeed, his brothers David, 51, president of New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank, and Nelson, 58, Governor of New York, both use the same words to describe his incentives: “Win found himself in Arkansas.” Adds David: “It was just what he wanted and needed.”

Why Arkansas? The answer lies partly in the Rockefeller mystique of service, partly in the personality of the most individualistic of John D.’s five grandsons. In Suite 5600 of Rockefeller Center’s RCA Building, Manhattan command post for the family’s worldwide enterprises, a senior staff member muses: “Win was always the most personally motivated of the boys. He was also the least assured.” A younger son of a comparable dynasty in Victorian England who displayed Winthrop’s early-blooming symptoms of rebelliousness and high living would have been packed off to colonize Kenya or repel the Pathans. It took more than familial pressures to part Fourth Son Winthrop from the Manhattan fleshpots and the clan’s Pocantico Hills domain in suburban Westchester. The incentive came from within.

For one thing, Win was born gregarious. More readily than his brothers and their older sister Abby, now wife of New York Banker Jean Mauze, Win befriended local children in Pocantico Hills, and ever since has shown a natural ease among men and women of disparate backgrounds. When he says, “I’ve always been interested in people”—and he says it often—he means just that. “Win was basically the nonconformist,” says David. “He was rebellious against the stereotype of what we are.” He seems always to have been the Rockefellers’ odd boy out. Their mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, once admonished the older sons in writing: “It seems cruel to me that you big boys should make Winthrop the goat all the time. You know very well that the only way to help him is by being kind to him.”

His apartness grew with age. Winny, as the family called him, was the huskiest Rockefeller, at 6 ft. 3 in. and a good 200 lbs., by his early twenties. He was also the only one of the five brothers to drop out of college (Yale during his third year). He never returned. “I went to a doctor,” he recalled later, “who examined my eyes and then remarked: ‘I don’t believe the trouble is in your eyes. Did you ever try opening a book?’ ” Roustabout to Roughneck. It was an unspoken law that all the Rockefeller boys should try their hands at manual labor while in school and on vacation.

Win went further. After Yale, at a stage when his brothers were selecting wives from the proper families and digging into the New York—based family businesses and philanthropies, he became a roustabout in the Texas oilfields at 75¢ per hour, moved up to roughneck, or assistant driller, at 83¢, and lived in a $4.50-a-week room. When he came home three years later, he worked briefly at junior jobs in such family-dominated enterprises as the Chase National Bank (now Chase Manhattan) and Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. (now Mobil). He began taking on charitable responsibilities and helped organize the Greater New York Fund. He became a leader of the National Urban League—not merely a contributor but a dedicated worker who did much to promote job opportunities for Negroes. Lester Granger, former executive director, calls Rockefeller “as good a board member as the Urban League ever had.”

It was a marked contrast to the popular impression of Winthrop Rockefeller. At night he was a leading swinger in the pre-jet set; as the handsomest, rovingest Rockefeller, and the hardest to catch, he kept society mothers in an agony of hope. Pelle Aavatsmark, who still works for the Greater New York Fund, recalls fondly: “He ate lunch with the staff, and some nights after work he took us to his apartment and he would cook a meal, serve some drinks and have some fun. There would be girls around. Win was a ladies’ man, you know. I didn’t know a person who didn’t like him.”

Brother Rock. Forsaking the bright lights, Rockefeller enlisted in the Army as a private nearly a year before Pearl Harbor. He earned a commission at officers’ candidate school, became a company commander in the 77th Division, and sailed to the Pacific battles behind a swashbuckling D’Artagnan mustache. An able infantryman who enjoyed the challenge and camaraderie of military life, he was popular with the troops, who called him “Brother Rock.” He gave each soldier a silver dollar for Christmas, and woolens knitted by Mother Rockefeller and her friends. The 77th went through the Guam and Leyte campaigns, and Rockefeller became a major on the 305th Regimental staff.

Six days before the Okinawa invasion, a kamikaze fireballed into the troopship Henrico, killing or wounding 225 members of the regiment. Rockefeller was the senior surviving army officer, and though seriously burned about the face and hands—it cost him his mustache and six weeks in hospital—he assumed command until help arrived the next day. He came out of service in 1946 wearing a lieutenant colonel’s silver leaves and a bronze star with oakleaf cluster.

The war had deepened his interest in people and their problems, and at his own expense he made a national survey of veterans’ readjustment problems for the War Department. Back in New York he took up personnel work at Socony-Vacuum, and immersed himself in half a dozen philanthropic causes.

Valentine Day. Then Bobo happened. Born Jievute Paulekiute in the Pennsylvania coal country, renamed Eva Paul, then Barbara Paul as a show-business title, then Bobo by the chic set she moved up to, the comely blonde had been married to Richard Sears Jr., a well-to-do Bostonian who went into the Foreign Service after the war. After first meeting the onetime model and bit actress in a New York restaurant, Win Rockefeller burbled: “I saw her and I knew I was gone.” He was 35. The wedding took place at 14 minutes past midnight on Valentine Day, 1948. Their son was born the following September, and the next year they separated. Gossip columnists, who had promoted the union as a real-life sequel to Cinderella and Prince Charming, billed it subsequently as Beauty and the Beast, casting Win as the brutish, skinflint millionaire.

Last of the brothers to marry and first to be divorced, Win reaped a press worse than any Rockefeller since John D. Sr. incurred the muckrakers’ wrath half a century before. Nor did the scars all heal when Bobo finally got a closed-door divorce, and a settlement of more than $6,000,000, in 1954. The legal tussle brought out the insinuation that Rockefeller owned a fabulous pornography collection—and lip-smacking reports of its treasures still circulate in Arkansas. “Did you also hear it was worth a million?” Rockefeller grins. In fact, says he, the collection never existed; the rumor started years earlier when he was called to testify against a defendant accused of stealing another man’s erotica, who had approached Winthrop as a possible buyer.

Of more lasting pain has been the separation from his only child, Winthrop Paul, now 18, who was also elected to office this fall—as president of his senior class at the Herringswell Manor School in England. Though young Win spends part of his holidays with his father, Bobo won custody of the boy and has had him in European schools for the past three years.

Fun Lover. In 1953, when he was 41, Win Rockefeller had ample impetus to change his life and milieu, which had soured both personally and professionally. He had to get out from under what David Rockefeller calls “the family stamp as he had it on him.” Describing those New York years, a friendly biographer characterized the other brothers as “ascetic” John D. 3rd, “imaginative” Nelson, “inventive” Laurance and “serious, studious” David. Winthrop? The adjective had to be “fun loving”—hardly the mark of acceptance in Rockefeller circles where. Nelson recalls, “it was pretty competitive, with all his brothers active.”

Some thought that Win picked Arkansas because of the state’s liberal divorce law and the fact that his marriage was finally approaching its legal climax. Actually, the divorce was to take place the next year in Reno. One factor in choosing Arkansas was the presence of a close Army buddy, the late Frank Newell, a Little Rock insurance man. Rockefeller also had an affinity for open country, dating back to his Texas oilfield days. Today he maintains that he was attracted from the first by the state’s “scenic beauty and very friendly people.”

He soon bought the beginnings of his ranch, 927 acres on the flat top of Petit Jean Mountain, 68 miles northwest of Little Rock. The property, which cost millions-to develop, has become the headquarters of Winrock Farms, now a 34,000-acre enterprise with holdings in Arkansas and Oklahoma and 6,000 head of cattle, including a prize herd of Santa Gertrudis breeding stock, great mahogany beasts crossbred from Shorthorns and Brahmans.

His first Santa Gertrudis bull—purchased from the King Ranch in Texas for $31,500—gave him not only a magnificent sire for his herd, but also half the spread’s name. The Win in Winrock is for Winthrop, but the Rock is for Rock the bull, not Rockefeller. Then he put in six artificial lakes, rebuilt the original house as a stone-and-glass palazzo, pumped water 850 ft. up the side of Petit Jean for an irrigation system, built roads and an airfield. He owns four planes, including a ten-passenger jet, employs five pilots, and has flown more than 3,000,000 miles with his private air force. He has no hobbies apart from occasional tree-pruning excursions. His vocation and avocation have become the state and the State of Arkansas.

Quintuplets Wanted. His activities are frenetic. As Winrock Farms became an important stock supplier, Winrock Enterprises and its subsidiaries branched out into land development, home construction and manufacturing. Philanthropy, of course, was ingrained and the largesse began to flow through the reverse end of moneymaking Winrock, the Rockwin Fund. He endowed the school system in his home county, helped establish the Arkansas Arts Center, contributed to colleges and the mental-health program, subsidized incentives to keep college graduates from leaving the state. To date he has given away more than $8,000,000 in Arkansas, where, he muses, “there is no end to worthy causes.”

Meanwhile, Rockefeller was conducting a long-distance courtship of Jeannette Edris, a hotel and theater heiress originally from Seattle, whom he had met in New York in 1951 after his separation from Bobo and Jeannette’s from her third husband. The only thing Jeannette seemed to have in common with Bobo was blonde hair. She is tall, matronly and dignified behind thick glasses. It was a quiet romance, and they were married in a sedate ceremony in 1956 at Hayden Lake, Idaho.

The breadth and pace of his activities quickly made him one of Arkansas’ first citizens, the “Big Rock of Little Rock,” as a headline writer dubbed him. The year after Rockefeller arrived, Democratic Governor Francis Cherry said: “The people wish Winthrop Rockefeller had been quintuplets and that they had all come here.”

Go-Gitters. When Orval Faubus took office as Governor in 1955, one of his first important acts was to establish the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission to lure manufacturing to the state. Win Rockefeller was the obvious choice to head it. Rockefeller was so determined to make the agency work that he personally padded the salaries of key staff members to induce them to stay with the commission. One of the commission’s first big catches was a $57 million International Paper plant, completed in 1958. During Rockefeller’s nine years as chairman, 600 new plants were built, providing 90,000 jobs and an annual payroll of $270 million. The number of workers employed in industry increased 47.5% compared with a national gain of less than 5%, and the wages generated by manufacturing went up 88%—compared with a national rise of 36%. Since 1959, population has grown by 1.8% a year,’ slightly more than the national rate.

The statistics, of course, show mainly how far the state had to go. The first new plants, notably apparel factories, generally paid low wages; many recruited women workers exclusively. (A “go-gitter” in Arkansasese is not an ambitious fellow, but one whose principal labor is to “go git” his wife at the plant.) Despite the progress that has been made, Arkansas still ranked 48th among the states last year in hourly wages for production workers ($1.83, v. a national average of $2.61). Now a drive is on to attract more sophisticated industry, such as electronics. To succeed, Arkansas must offer a skilled work force. But its underfinanced educational system, spending only $376 per pupil a year compared with the national average of $532 in 1965, is not up to the task.

The deeper he got into state affairs, the more Rockefeller became convinced that the one-party system was the principal roadblock to progress. Faubus had used the Little Rock crisis to break the two-term tradition, and showed every indication of staying on indefinitely (he is now finishing his sixth two-year term). The statewide organization Faubus built became autocratic and impervious to reform. While relatively little corruption has been proved, there have been scandals in the highway and prison departments—despite the state government’s antipathy to investigations. The highway department has not undergone an independent audit for 14 years. Reformers also suspect that the state’s long history of ballot-box jiggery-pokery did not improve much with the coming of Faubus’ rule. Despite the state motto, “Let the People Rule,” elections are tightly controlled at the county level, where the cost of a vote can range from $1 to $20. The dead and the long absent have been known to cast ballots in amazing numbers, and the Arkansas Election Research Council, a nonpartisan group, reports one county official’s estimate: “It takes $20,000 to buy an election here.”

So Steal. The constitution itself inhibits efficient administration by holding down state aid to local government and keeping public officials’ pay ridiculously low. The Governor gets $10,000 a year—though Faubus has managed to build a home that he estimates will cost $100,000 and the Republicans say will take perhaps $250,000. No mayor in Arkansas may receive more than $5,000 a year. Mayor William Laman of North Little Rock (pop. 62,000), who has a furniture business on the side, gets official takehome pay of $362 per month. “When I complain about the salary,” says Laman, “they say, The money’s there for you to take. If you’re not smart enough to take it, you deserve your crummy salary.’ ”

The G.O.P., as Rockefeller found it, was “a patronage party that could have held its convention in a telephone booth.” He began the gestation of a new party by discarding the old. He organized a nonpartisan Committee for Two Parties and began speaking all over the state. “You are tired of this stiffling cobweb,” he would say, “and so am I. Together, we can brush it away.” After becoming Republican National Committeeman in 1961, he consolidated his position by hiring a professional staff at state headquarters and setting up permanent committees in each of the 75 counties. Though he established a United Republican Fund that is now raising $8,000 a month, Arkansans have left the heavy spending to him. One casualty has been the gay old social life. Between business, philanthropy and politics, Rockefeller today often works until 2 or 3 a.m.

Mottled. By 1964 he was ready to take on Faubus in the gubernatorial election. He lost, but put up such a spirited fight—getting 44% of the vote —that both he and his party were plainly in Arkansas to stay. Rockefeller never stopped running between elections, averaging two speeches a week before the next formal campaign started. By early 1966 he took the lead over Faubus in public-opinion polls, and was beginning to overcome his earlier awkwardness on the podium.

If he hardly sounded to the Ozarks born, Rockefeller had long since looked the part, from fancy cowboy boots (he has a dozen pairs) to Western-style hat (a felt Stetson for formal occasions, a ventilated straw model for everyday). Even with a dinner jacket, he wears riding boots. His embonpoint bulging over his belt, his thinning grey hair straggly in the back, his broad smile displaying teeth mottled by two packs of unfiltered Picayunes a day, Rockefeller is every inch the hillbillionaire.

Best described as a moderate conservative, Rockefeller faced something of a crisis of conscience over Barry Goldwater’s candidacy. He was lukewarm toward Goldwater, while most other Arkansas Republicans were ardent Barry fans. Rockefeller supported the national ticket after the San Francisco convention, reasoning that any other course would have shattered the newborn state party, and ran 35,000 votes ahead of Goldwater in Arkansas. Like Goldwater, Rockefeller opposed the 1964, 1965 and 1966 federal civil rights bills, saying he agreed with the objectives but not the means. He also opposes federal guidelines for school integration. In his own campaigns, he has generally avoided the racial issue, while the Democrats belabored him for his alleged liberalism. When the Democrats tried to tie him to Nelson’s position, Win replied: “There are obvious differences between me and my brother on race relations. You’ve got to be realistic about these things.”

Caution. His attitude is shared by most Arkansans. While in terms of job opportunities, political advancement, housing and other important sectors the state’s Negroes are obviously behind those in the North, they are still better off than those in most other Southern states. This was true even before the Little Rock eruption in 1957. The intense racial animosities of the Deep South are notably absent in Arkansas, where Negroes had little difficulty voting even before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Little Rock, where schools were rigidly segregated ten years ago, some 1,400 Negroes now go to classes with whites. With a 25% Negro population statewide, Arkansas’ school integration pace is ahead of the Deep South’s—and with less pressure from Washington. Rather than risk another Little Rock, most white Arkansans today accept a gradualistic approach to civil rights issues.

Rockefeller also promises caution in tackling the state’s many other problems. He plans ultimately to seek wide-ranging reforms—among them, a constitutional convention, a comprehensive merit system for state employees, continuing audits of state agencies and improvements in both academic and vocational education—but says that he will keep his campaign pledge not to raise taxes during his first term. He insists that he will force the resignations of some Faubus appointees who have fixed terms, but has praised several able incumbents. It was, after all, Democratic votes that elected him, and he will still need Democratic votes when he runs in 1968 for a second two-year term—which he says will be his last.

High Hopes. On paper, his chances for accomplishment seem slim. The Democrats will hold all 35 state senate seats and all but three in the 100-man house. But the Democratic Party, shaken first by Faubus’ retirement, then by the defeat of a Faubus candidate in the party primary, and finally by Rockefeller’s victory over Jim Johnson, is in a state of unaccustomed disarray. Moreover, the new Governor will give the Republicans control of each of the county election commissions, and that will tend to inhibit construction of a new statewide Democratic machine. Many of the 50 freshman Democrats elected to the legislature have no ties with the party establishment, and may be amenable to cooperating with a new and popular Governor.

Any successor to a twelve-year incumbent has to live up to great expectations. And Winthrop, as a Republican, a reformer, and above all a Rockefeller, has raised hopes high. Indeed, his party’s future in the state will depend heavily on his performance in office. However, as North Little Rock’s Democratic Mayor Laman points out: “He has a really deep desire to help this state, to leave his mark on it. Arkansas can’t give him one thing he hasn’t already got.”

It can, in fact. It can offer Winthrop Rockefeller the personal triumph of transforming a Land of Opportunity into a state of achievement.

* The five brothers and sister Abby are each worth an estimated $200 million-plus.

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