the suzi parker files

Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln: A Modern Day Scarlett O’Hara

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Bill Clinton is calling Blanche Lincoln the comeback kid.

But, she’s more like Scarlett O’Hara.

Like Scarlett, Lincoln can beautifully ooze Southern charm and drawl in desperate times like those she faced against her Democratic Senate runoff opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, during the last few months. On Tuesday, Lincoln delivered a shocker worthy of a Southern gothic novel in her surprise win over Halter in a year when she had become the poster girl for anti-incumbent fervor. She’ll face Republican John Boozman in the fall.

Analysts and political scientists will Monday morning quarterback this race for weeks. Did the relentless progressive push hurt Halter in Blue Dog Arkansas? Did it weaken the clout of national unions? Was there gender gap?

There’s a simple point to be made: The average Arkansan doesn’t know from butter beans. But they do know that they like a politician who sits down and eats a plate of fried catfish — or even raccoon — with them. Like her mentor Clinton before her, Lincoln plays the Southern politician card with the skill of a blackjack dealer. Her gamble paid off when she defeated Halter with 52 percent of the vote to his 48 percent.

Voters didn’t see a lot of Lincoln the Southerner before the primary. She was painted by her foes as a Washington insider with ties to Yankee groups like Goldman Sachs. She stayed in the Beltway and pushed complicated banking legislation that sounded like hogwash to voters sitting around a coffee shop on the courthouse square.

In Margaret Mitchell’s 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern novel, “Gone With The Wind,” Scarlett O’Hara is a Southern belle who changes her colors like a chameleon through the Civil War and Reconstruction to whatever ends are best for her.

Southern women who align with Scarlett wonder, “What Would Scarlett Do?” when the going gets tough.

At the conclusion of the movie version, when Rhett Butler doesn’t give a damn anymore, Scarlett, distraught, wonders what she will do. “Tara, oh, I’ll go home.”

That’s what Lincoln did.

On Monday, the day before the runoff against Halter, she began the day in Helena, her hometown on the edge of the Mississippi River, a faded glory of the Old South with crumbling plantation homes.

Helena sits in the Delta, the impoverished region that mirrors Appalachia. After the primary, it was questionable if Lincoln, the daughter of a farmer of a 1,500-acre rice and soybean farm, would win the counties in the region, even Phillips County, where she was born.

But her seventh-generation roots there prevailed. She won it with 61 percent to Halter’s 39 percent.

During the three-week runoff season, Lincoln dropped in on festivals, diners and county courthouses, pouring on the Southern sugar, especially in Arkansas’ First District, which she represented in Congress from 1993 to 1997. She lost several counties there on May 18. She gained most of them back in the runoff.

In places like Helena, Halter, a native of North Little Rock, was seen as a city boy who lacked the good ol’ boy gene.

Lincoln was helped when Clinton arrived in Arkansas on Memorial Day when her campaign appeared to be wilting like a gardenia. Clinton preached to the Democratic die-hards with red-faced fire and brimstone. Lincoln listened intently and she transformed instantly into a steel magnolia.

Where Halter would have never been credible standing on a tractor giving a campaign speech, Lincoln was. She did that very thing last week in southern Arkansas, while wearing a lavender pant suit.

After the primary, she basked in her position as the first female and first Arkansan to serve as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, posing for pictures with fresh boxes of produce from backyard gardens. Would Scarlett have done that? Yes, ma’am.

The old Blanche, who rode in a refitted school bus in her first political campaign and kept her congressional letterhead with her maiden name until it ran out to save taxpayer money, had returned.

It was the same Blanche from 1999 who told me in an interview, “Oh, I love for gentlemen to stand up when I come into the room or open the door for me, and I always make it a point to thank them for it. As I said, I like being a woman. And my mother always taught me that the best way for me to make sure a man acted like a gentleman was to make sure I acted like a lady.”

And she did.

In one of her closing ads, Lincoln, standing in a pasture, opted for a straight-in-the-camera direct approach. She said wistfully that she would rather lose the election “fighting for what’s right than win by turning my back on Arkansas.”

On Tuesday, when Lincoln and her husband voted at their Little Rock precinct, she thanked the elderly volunteer poll workers, shook hands with reporters and did a bit of cheerleading in front of a handful of supporters in the 95 degree heat.

Lincoln squeaked out a tough win. But as the vote count rolled in, Lincoln failed as a gracious Southern belle.

She trounced on Halter’s concession speech, giving her victory speech at Little Rock’s Union Station before he finished his remarks at the nearby Peabody Hotel — a serious faux paus in all political circles, Southern or otherwise. On Wednesday morning, she took an early flight to Washington because Senate duties called. Scarlett — always thinking of Scarlett — would have done the same thing.

But in this case, a quick morning-after cup of victory coffee with supporters would have been the polite thing to do.


Written by suziparker1313

March 2, 2011 at 7:39 pm

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