Southern Discomfort : Orval Faubus gained notoriety in 1957 when he tried to stop school integration in Arkansas. He still wants to soften history’s view of him.
When Bill Clinton declared his candidacy for the presidency in front of the old state Capitol in downtown Little Rock last September, another Arkansas governor was milling in the crowd, greeting old friends and buttonholing reporters.
He was an elderly man, tall but slightly stooped, with downy white hair and hound-dog eyes. His voice, tinged with the cadences of the Ozarks, was gravelly and weak. A pacemaker beat beneath his shirt.
Yet the scores of reporters who had descended on Little Rock to cover Clinton’s opening salvo didn’t recognize Orval E. Faubus. He’d been out of the news for so long that he was largely forgotten or presumed dead.
But there he was, alive and ticking, still pressing the flesh like a seasoned campaigner. He hadn’t come to throw his support behind Clinton’s presidential bid; he was just curious about what the young governor had to say. And Faubus has never been a man to avoid a crowd.
In the sweep of an eye, one could almost see the passage of the Old South to the New: Before Clinton arrived on the national scene, Faubus was Arkansas’ most noted--and most notorious--political figure, a symbol of Southern defiance in the Central High desegregation crisis.
In the late 1950s, Chet Huntley dubbed him “history’s stepchild.” Louis Armstrong called him “an uneducated plowboy.” A Gallup Poll in 1958 named Faubus one of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the United States.” He received two dozen assassination threats. His Sphinx-like smile curled across the covers of Time and countless other magazines and newspapers.
“Everyone was checking out my record there for a while. I was the most-checked man in America,” Faubus recalls with pride.
Now 82, Faubus has always been a man of contradictions. He has been labeled a mountain socialist, a populist, a Dixiecrat and a business Whig. But despite his long, varied career, Faubus will always be remembered for a certain pregnant moment in the autumn of 1957, 35 years ago this month.
Faubus astonished the world by ordering the National Guard to cordon off the grounds of Little Rock Central High and prevent the entrance of nine black children who had been selected to integrate the school. He claimed that “caravans” of armed segregationists were planning to descend on Central. Arkansas wasn’t ready for integration, he said. The Little Rock Nine would just have to wait.
Faubus’ maneuver created a constitutional crisis, forcing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to call out the 101st Airborne Division to escort the children to class. Overnight, Little Rock became a symbol of bigotry and racial turmoil.
Faubus found himself the darling of segregationists. But this former schoolteacher and newspaper publisher from the Ozarks was a populist Democrat with no known history of racial animus. And unlike Alabama’s George Wallace, he never stood in a schoolhouse door, preferring to couch his actions in the euphemistic code language of “states’ rights.”
“If this be the law,” he declared at the time of the Central High crisis, “then every state in this Union is nothing more than a vassal state to the central government.”
The rest of the world may have been appalled by Faubus’ gambit, but in the calculus of Arkansas politics, it proved brilliant. Segregationist sentiment ran strong in Arkansas. The second-term governor went on to win four more terms. All told, Faubus lived 12 years in the governor’s mansion and remains the only Arkansas governor who has served more terms than Clinton.
But as modern attitudes toward race have changed the face of Arkansas--and the South--1957 has come back to haunt Faubus. He has spent much of his later years revisiting his actions at Central High, answering the harsh queries of historians and constitutional law scholars who still come knocking on his door.
Like Richard M. Nixon, Faubus seems deeply concerned with the judgment of history and disappointed that his good works as governor will probably be overshadowed by a single infamous episode, what he terms the “so-called” crisis.
Faubus was the Huey Long of Arkansas politics, a colorful, enigmatic man with a nimble sense of timing and a gift for vernacular speech. He was generally viewed as a progressive who rebuilt the state mental hospital, significantly increased teacher salaries and welfare payments to the elderly, and saved the scenic Buffalo River from development. He even softened on racial issues, presiding over the integration of the state’s schools and universities and hiring numerous blacks in his Administration.
When he stepped down in 1967, he retired in triumph to a cliff-side dream house in the Ozarks. The “Big House,” as he liked to call it, was only 25 miles from the hardscrabble hills where he was born in poverty. It was widely expected that Faubus would hole up in the Big House for a year and then make a run for William Fulbright’s seat in the U.S. Senate.
But fate turned on Faubus, and he suffered a string of misfortunes that would have broken Job: In 1969, Alta, his wife of 37 years, divorced him, citing “abuse and consistent neglect.” In 1976, his only son, Farrell, committed suicide by drug overdose. He was 37. In 1983, Faubus’ second wife, Beth, was murdered in Houston, where the couple lived for a time.
Meanwhile, Faubus’ finances unraveled. To help pay the bills, he turned the Big House into a makeshift museum and gave tours for $1.25 a head. After serving as the director of an amusement park called Dogpatch U.S.A., Faubus took a job as a bank teller for a $5,000 annual salary.
For a few lonely years, he spent most of his time driving around the state promoting his books and occasionally offering autographs for spare cash.
As if these trials weren’t enough, his health has repeatedly failed him. He has fought cancer and heart troubles and has undergone surgery 12 times.
But Faubus never lost the political bug. In 1970 and 1974, he made impressive but unsuccessful comeback bids for the governorship. After getting trounced by Clinton in the 1986 Democratic primary, he finally threw in the towel, calling himself “a has-been.”
In 1989, he sold the Big House and left the Ozarks. “That was more house than I ever bargained for,” he chuckles. “I had learned to love every foot of it. But I had to sell it to pay off the bankers. I didn’t have anything left, but I can now write on my tombstone: ‘Orval Faubus--His Debts Were Paid.’ ”
Today, Faubus lives in a comfortable although decidedly smaller house in the college town of Conway, half an hour’s drive north of Little Rock, with his third wife, Jan, a 49-year-old schoolteacher.
The first image that greets visitors is an enormous oil portrait of the young governor from the glory days of his Administration, his ruddy visage beaming down from the top of the stairs. The contrast between the rumpled old man at the door and the young executive looming behind him is striking and somehow desperately sad.
Political memorabilia clutters the house. In his downstairs office are photographs of the governor pictured alongside John F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman and a framed copy of his Time magazine cover from 1957.
Faubus has crow’s feet around his eyes and a long hook nose that constantly drips. His glum expression brightens once he starts talking.
As he recounts boyhood tales, he speaks softly, almost reverently, in an engaging hillbilly brogue flecked with King James English. He still is full of nervous energy, constantly tapping his foot, drumming his fleshy fingers on the arm of his chair.
Last year, Faubus was found to have prostate cancer and given 37 treatments of radiation therapy. Now it’s his wife’s health that concerns him most: Jan recently developed breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy after a mastectomy.
He writes a column for a trucking newspaper and organizes reunions for his Army division from World War II. Occasionally, he gives political speeches. He delights in getting a rise out of the press by taking unpredictable stands. In 1988, for example, he endorsed Jesse Jackson for President.
Controversy has pursued him even in retirement. Recently he was honored with a bust in the rotunda of the state Capitol, despite the strident objections of black opponents.
He has written five books, ranging from a memoir of his service in Patton’s Third Army to a eulogy for his many dogs. His two-volume autobiography, “Down From the Hills,” has been labeled a “revisionist history” by critics. He thinks he has one more book in him, a celebration of Ozarks culture.
Faubus remains a close observer of the political scene, and his opinions are still sought. He’ll hold forth on any topic, especially if you agree to buy one of his books.
Affirmative action: “It’s just as unfair as it can be.”
The federal government: “The trend toward the federal usurpation of the states is continuous and inevitable and will result in a dictatorship of the American Caesars.”
Clinton’s tenure as governor: “He hasn’t minded the store. And he raised the state sales tax by 1.5 percentage points.” Faubus pauses, and the old mountain populist smolders from within. “That’s your ordinary people he’s hurting.”
One topic he won’t discuss in detail is Clinton’s bid for the presidency.
“We’ve always had people in Arkansas who were capable of being President,” he says. “People like William Fulbright, John McClellan, Wilbur Mills. But the timing wasn’t right. Winning in politics is just like fording a stream. You don’t know when it’s going to flood, when it’s going to flow swift or when it’s going to grow still. See, it all depends on your timing.”
It was timing, more than anything else, that accounted for Faubus’ inability to stage a comeback in Arkansas politics. “The times changed on him,” says Paul Greenberg, the conservative editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “And while he was a shrewd politician, he wasn’t able to change fast enough.”
The next generation’s candidate, Bill Clinton, has been in many ways the antithesis of Faubus, a modern rebuke of an old Dixie style. Clinton grew up in the midst of the Little Rock crisis, and as a liberal governor he has done much to erase its bitter legacy.
Today, Central High is considered one of Arkansas’ model schools, with a thoroughly integrated student body. Former Little Rock Nine student Ernest Green, now a managing director for an investment banking firm in Washington, has developed a close personal and political relationship with Clinton.
“I find it remarkable,” says Green, “that in a single generation, I’ve gone from having an Arkansas governor exclude me from a school at gunpoint to having an Arkansas governor include me in his private counsels.”
Still, Faubus insists that he was never opposed to the goal of integration, only to the “cowardly” way in which the federal government foisted it on Arkansas.
There was, he admits, an element of political calculation in his decision. “You have to be a realist,” he contends. “If I hadn’t acted as I did, I would have lost all influence and control, because at the time the (segregationist) sentiment was so overwhelming.”
He still maintains that his paramount concern in calling out the National Guard was preserving tranquillity. But most historians dispute his claim of impending bloodshed.
“The threat of violence was phony,” argues Harry Ashmore, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor of the Arkansas Gazette, who writes history books in Santa Barbara. “I’m not saying Orval Faubus was a racist. He was just an opportunist. . . . But he harmed Arkansas in every imaginable way.”
Other historians take a milder view. “I think Faubus was, in some senses, victimized by the forces of history,” observes Arkansas native C. Vann Woodward, emeritus professor of Southern history at Yale University. “Faubus did what he felt was politically wise, and in so doing he stepped on a historical live wire.”
Many believe that Faubus’ dilemma could be eased by a simple act of humility: a public apology. They note that George Wallace apologized and later won the overwhelming support of Alabama’s black voters. Faubus, on the other hand, has steadfastly refused to recant.
“I haven’t apologized because I didn’t do anything to apologize for,” he insists in brittle tones.
Nevertheless, many in Arkansas believe that until Faubus accepts the blame for ’57, the Furies of Central High will keep hounding him.
“He carries it around with him like some kind of albatross,” says Paul Greenberg. “When you see him now, it’s as if he has ‘1-9-5-7' written across his suit.”
And so, wherever a large crowd gathers in Arkansas--as at Clinton’s announcement speech--you can expect to see the old governor, proud and unrepentant, perhaps even lugging a few copies of his autobiography to sell, still trying to persuade.
“I was a victim of circumstance,” he says, his voice cracking with consternation. “I offended the great federal government, and I’ve paid for it ever since.”