Time is slowly erasing the "Old Guard" in Arkansas politics. However, many of Arkansas's older residents remember the not-so-long-ago days of Democratic Party politics in White County, Arkansas.
One unlikely candidate was a young man, barely out of his teens, Harry Claiborne.
Harry Claiborne was a die-hard Southern Baptist. Everyone in his hometown of McRae seemed to know that he wanted to be a minister. Most of the older citizens remember today that Harry got his start addressing the public on street corners when he was ten years old. It was common knowledge he had built a platform in the family barnyard and lectured the chickens and hogs; he was a serious student of the Bible.
One McRae lady raised bulldogs and considered them family. Her oldest dog, "Jiggs", died of old age. She had a casket built for the canine and asked Harry to say a few words over the dear departed. Certainly no dog ever had a more beautiful funeral oration--or theatrical.
At the tender age of twenty, Harry decided to run for the Arkansas House of Representatives in the 1937 Democratic Primary.
Most anyone who knows the history of Arkansas politics in that period knows that White County's elections were determined long before a single vote was cast. This is not to say that elections were dishonest; it just meant that the winners were determined long before a single vote was cast.
White County had several families with considerable political influence. These factions divided the county into four to five political areas. A doctor in Beebe influenced the votes in the southern part of the county, while another doctor in Judsonia influenced the votes in town and out towards Plainview. One family controlled Bald Knob; yet another controlled Griffithsville.
Running against Harry were W.P. "Bill" Dodds, Elbert Leasure, Roland Lindsey and a man named "Preacher" Pearrow (Pay-row). All of them were good men.
Of the five, Lindsey and Leasure had the most clout, so it was a sure bet that one of them was going to win. Harry Claiborne entered the race knowing the odds, but primaries in that day were considered entertainment as much as political events. The primaries gave Claiborne the opportunity to do what he enjoyed most, entertain an appreciative audience.
It was common opinion in McRae that Harry Claiborne, by far the youngest candidate, was the best speaker of the five Democratic candidates. Despite his great speaking talents, Harry knew he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning the primary.
The winner of the primary was assured victory in the fall general election because at the time, Republicans were as scarce as hen's teeth in White County.
Harry recruited his friend, 16 year-old Newbern Chambers, as his campaign manager, driver, and flat-tire repairman. A friend in McRae loaned Claiborne a car that burned as much oil as gasoline, averaging around two flats a day on the local roads. In this vehicle, Claiborne and Chambers "stumped" White County.
Fixing a flat was an adventure. "Boots", which were large U-shaped patches that went inside tire casings, prevented leaky inner tubs from leaking more. Also, all the roads were gravel and dirt. During hot summers, the dust was like a dust storm anytime another automobile passed by. That, mixed with the heat and humidity of an Arkansas summer, made fixing a flat downright unpleasant. By the end of the campaign and two flats a day, the tires were full of boots and the ride was a jarring experience.
It was not uncommon the candidates to carpool to rallies, or for the opposition to buy dinner for their financially-strapped opponents. More often than not, Campaign Manager Chambers was left behind fixing a flat on the Claiborne car while Candidate Claiborne hitchiked to a rally. Chambers would arrive late to the rally, generally grimy and dust-covered, just in time to pick up the candidate for the drive home.
Another contribution to Claiborne's campaign was fuel for the campaign vehicle. Many times Claiborne and Chambers coasted into the donor's filling station on fumes. While Claiborne chatted with the owner and filled the tank, Chambers grabbed a two pound Cristine Lard can out of a pasteboard box in the trunk and trotted to the back of the station where an open barrel held old oil mixed with rainwater, dirt, and whatever else happened to fall into it. Chambers filled the lard can with the nasty black goop, and poured it, unfiltered, into the car. A "thank you", a tip of the Claiborne hat, and the campaign was back on the road.
Another constituent in Bradford fed the boys any day or hour they requested it. Once they stopped by at 2:30 a.m. and were fed.
The candidates all rode with Roland Lindsey to a Pangburn rally in Lindsey's flashy new sedan. Chambers was the only campaign manager allowed on the trip, probably because he was good at fixing flats. The conversation took an interesting turn when Roland said, Boys, I don't know who's gonna be third, fourth, or fifth, but Elbert and I are gonna win first and second. Of course, Roland's brother-in-law was Congressman John E. Miller, and Elbert was the son-in-law of Al Choate of Beebe. They both had local political clout and were good men. Their political connections in White County assured victory for one of them.
Later, at the Pangburn rally, the mud-slinging was at a fast and furious pace. Sometimes it seemed that it was a contest to see who could be the most outrageous in his stump speech.
One of the candidates, "Preacher" Pearrow, was legally blind. He had had his eyes damaged in a hunting accident or World War I, no one was quite sure. However, Bill Dodds claimed he knew how Pearrow had lost his eyes: Pearrow lost his eyes stealin' watermelons. He then shook his finger at young Claiborne: Look at him! Why he's too young to be runnin' for office - - he's still young enough to be nursin' his mama! He also mentioned that Roland Lindsay had declared himself first and Leasure second during the drive to the rally.
On the way home afterwards, Roland Lindsey turned to Bill Dodds and said, Normally, that would be a basis for letting you find a way home with someone else, Bill Dodds. He smiled his familiar little smile. But, since you told the truth, I'd be a little unprincipled not to let you ride back with me!
Roland Lindsey was a very congenial person, and had a laid-back sense of humor.
Claiborne decided that the only way that he was going to win this election was by buying a little political clout. Rumor had it that a certain man held a lot of clout in the White Oak Community. Claiborne and Chambers made connections and met with the White Oak kingpin under a tree at the local church.
The White Oak kingpin was determined to impress the young candidate, who he hoped would cross his palm with a little cash. The man swelled up with pride when he told them both of his extensive travels. I have went to Asia. I have went to Europe, but the most beautiful country I ever did see was I-Owe-Way!
Harry was sure that he would carry McRae and White Oak, after his meeting with White Oak's most influential citizen.
After all the weeks of campaigning, election night finally arrived. All voting precincts reported to the White County Courthouse by telephone; totals were next telephoned to the White County Citizen then posted on a large chalkboard outside the newspaper office.
Harry Claiborne carried McRae but in the White Oak Community, Roland Lindsey placed first and Elbert Leasure came in a close second. The other candidates received zero votes each. It was obvious that Claiborne had failed to sufficiently impress the White Oak kingpin.
Candidate Claiborne turned to his campaign manager at that moment, and remarked rather soberly, Things are looking bleak. Let's go get a beer. The Claiborne camp took to its heels and drowned its sorrows at a Searcy beer joint.