Newspaper endorsement editorials are notoriously snooze-inducing affairs. (Maybe that’s why we’re seeing a spate of non-endorsements this year—it’s the only way to attract attention.) But the press corps down in Arkansas seems to have found the recipe for livening up this journalistic stand-by: Start with a hilariously understated recommendation for your preferred candidate. Add a bizarre bit of political history, retrieved from the vault and introduced by way of a non sequitur question. Sprinkle in a nod to the local political culture, and presto!
We first saw this formula at work in the amazing Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial endorsing John Boozman in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, flagged here a little while back. That piece would have been remarkable if only for its rather, er, reserved enthusiasm for the veteran Republican congressman (“good old, dull old John Boozman”; “plain, reliable, and quite predictable”; “all the characteristics of the dull gray species”). But it also set off on a trip down memory lane by posing a timeless question (“remember good old Monroe Schwarzlose, the turkey farmer from Kingsland—no, outside Kingsland—who put such a scare into Bill Clinton?”). As for down-home credentials, well, consider the lead-in to the Schwarzlose section (“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end. Not in good ol’, fesity ol’, populist ol’ Arkinsaw.”)
All in all, a tour de force performance. But lest you think this formula only works in the Republican races, take a look at the column penned today by Ernest Dumas for the alternative weekly Arkansas Times, which wades into the hard-fought Democratic primary, where Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter are still duking it out. Here’s the opening:
For Democrats, the election season comes down to this: Assuming that a Democrat has any chance to beat the old Republican left tackle for the Razorbacks for the U.S. Senate, is it more likely to be Sen. Blanche Lincoln or Lt. Gov. Bill Halter?
Forget Senator Lincoln’s Agriculture chairmanship and her lovely personality and Halter’s wretched lottery and his off-putting ambition. Halter is a Democrat’s only chance, and in this cheerless year it is not a great one.
So Halter’s signature policy achievement is “wretched,” he’s a creepy careerist, and he’s almost sure to lose to Boozman in the general, but he’s the best chance you’ve got. Are you pumped yet?
That’s the back-handed praise. How about the history, introduced by an interrogative?
Yes, [Lincoln] did beat [Boozman’s] brother Fay in her first election to the Senate in 1998 and might hope for the same matchup. Both Boozmen were prone to gaffes but can she hope for a godsend like Fay’s famous “God’s protective little shield”?
Dr. Boozman, an ophthalmologist who was the Republican Senate nominee, proclaimed that women who were raped were not apt to get pregnant because a woman’s body emitted protective hormones when she was having unwanted sex and they prevented her from conceiving. That was his justification for opposing abortion for women who said they had been raped.
Despite his slight daffiness Fay remained beloved in Northwest Arkansas until his death in 2005, when his barn gate fell on him, but “God’s little shield” turned the tide for Lincoln in 1998.
Check. As for local color, Dumas doesn’t toss in any “good ole”-speak, but he does offer this little rumination on the source of Boozman’s appeal:
Is he beatable at all? The Republican-leaning Rasmussen polls say no. Congress.org’s power ratings of the 435 members of Congress rank Boozman 386th.
In poor Arkansas, “Hey, we’re 386th!” is a pretty good battle cry.
Judged by entertainment value and brutal honesty, I’d have to give the edge to the Democrat-Gazette, which kicked things up a notch with a spectacularly jaundiced meditation on the paint-by-numbers style of most endorsements (“Then end the thing with a -30- and a great big Yawn.”) Still, here’s hoping that after the June 8 runoff, some of these Arkansas journalists team up to offer a master class in their technique to endorsement writers around the rest of the country. The first step to informing readers, after all, is giving them something that deserves to be read.
P.S. Dumas, for one, is sure to remember Schwarzlose. According to the turkey farmer’s sadly under-sourced Wikipedia entry, Dumas, then an associate editor at the Arkansas Gazette, quipped of Schwarzlose’s quixotic 1980 gubernatorial run: “even Hee Haw gets tiresome on the third rerun.”Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.