Friday Jul 19

A Political History of Modern Arkansas and Much of America Reflected in David Pryor’s Career

David Pryor, a natural-born politician who spent thirty-four years in public offices, including governor, the state legislature and both houses of Congress, died Saturday [April 20, 2024] at his home in Little Rock at the age of 89. He ran for public offices 13 times between 1960 and 1996 and lost only once—a 1972 race for the U.S. Senate against Sen. John L. McClellan.

Pryor was a liberal Democrat long before it became a term of opprobrium. He was stirred to enter politics, first as a crusading weekly newspaper editor at Camden and then as a candidate for the legislature, by the rise of racial hatred and discord after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 outlawing segregation in the nation’s public schools. A senior and student leader at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Pryor traveled to the Capitol in February 1957 to testify at a dramatic public hearing on a bill creating a state sovereignty commission that would stop racial integration and find and punish people and groups that supported integration—or “race mixing,” as it was commonly called. He thought the bill was a flagrant violation of the federal and state constitutions. He was blocked from testifying, he would learn, at the instigation of university officials, notably the president, who feared a backlash against the school. The passage of a raft of bills to maintain white supremacy and Gov. Orval E. Faubus’s signing them into law in early 1957 and then Faubus’s dispatch of National Guardsmen to prevent nine Black youngsters from entering Little Rock Central High School that fall turned Pryor and his new wife, the former Barbara Jean Lunsford, into crusaders and reaffirmed his notion from early childhood that politics was the best way to spend his life.

David Hampton Pryor was born Aug. 29, 1934, in Camden, the third of four children of William Edgar Pryor and Susan Newton Pryor. His father ran a car dealership, was Ouachita County sheriff for four years and was always politically connected and influential. Governor Ben T. Laney (1945–1949) was a neighbor and family friend, although Laney’s leadership of the Southern white-supremacy movement and his disloyalty to the Democratic Party in 1948 disturbed young Pryor, whose hero was Gov. Sid McMath from next-door Magnolia and Hot Springs, who had thwarted Laney’s Dixiecrat party and carried Arkansas for President Harry S. Truman that year. Pryor’s mother, who was known as Susie, had been a champion of women’s suffrage, and was the first woman to run for public office in Arkansas, losing a race for circuit and county clerk in 1926. She later won a school board race.

His autobiography, A Pryor Commitment, said he was attracted to politics almost from the time that he could read, perhaps owing to his father’s engagement in politics and with politicians. (The elder Pryor raised the money in 1942 that kept Congressman John L. McClellan from leaving the US Senate race, which he won in a Democratic runoff primary with Attorney General Jack Holt. McClellan was later shocked and embittered that his patron’s son would run against him. He had expected Pryor to succeed him when he retired.)

Pryor wrote that after seeing the 1950 movie Born Yesterday, starring William Holden and Judy Holliday and set in political Washington, he ran home and sent a letter to Congressman Oren Harris of El Dorado, a family friend, asking if he could be a congressional page that summer. Harris agreed. Pryor drove to Washington, finally found the Capitol and reached the House doorkeeper’s office, where he was rebuked for being late and sent to the Senate, where there was an emergency—an all-night filibuster after all the Senate pages had gone home. When he reached the Senate floor, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin (the anticommunist conspiracist who was later censured by the Senate) snapped his fingers at Pryor, scribbled a note, fished out a ten-dollar bill and handed him a ring of keys.

Pryor’s account: “Here, son,” he said. “Get a taxi and go to this address, and on the floor of the closet in the bedroom you’ll find my bedroom slippers. Bring them to me.” It was David Pryor’s first act of public service.

After Pryor enrolled as a freshman at Baylor University at Waco his father died suddenly and he canceled his enrollment and went instead to Henderson State Teachers College at Arkadelphia, 45 miles up Highway 7. When he arrived on campus late, he was greeted by a sign in front of Womack Hall, the men’s dormitory, saying “David Pryor for Freshman Class President.” He was elected. After a year, he transferred to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He took a horse with him and put the colt in a stable at a farm south of town. He wrote that it had been a stupid thing to do because he rarely found time to ride the animal. He figured that he had done it because the last time he had seen his father alive was when the old man was astride a horse in the 1952 Ouachita County Fair parade.

As the spring semester was ending in 1954, Pryor got a note to call Gov. Francis Cherry, who had defeated his hero Sid McMath two years earlier. Cherry wanted him to be his driver while he was campaigning for re-election in the Democratic primaries against Faubus and two other men that summer. In his autobiography and two oral histories late in life Pryor gave poignant accounts of Cherry’s grace and caring and the agonizing dilemmas the governor had faced in the historic confrontation with Faubus in the runoff primary; Cherry had decided to question Faubus’s patriotism by making an issue of his attendance at a socialist self-help school at Mena, Commonwealth College, and subsequently lying about it. It was to be an evening television speech at the KARK studio, which Pryor called “the speech of Cherry’s political life.” Pryor said he waited in the car for Cherry to leave the mansion for the studio and the governor veered into the shrubs next to the car and vomited. After his stumbling and wooden speech, Cherry returned to the car solemnly and said, “How’d I do, kid?” Pryor said he congratulated Cherry but began to realize that the speech had been a terrible mistake.

It occurred while the country, including Arkansas, rebelled against “McCarthyism,” which had been exposed as a fraud the previous month in the Army-McCarthy hearings before a Senate committee, including Arkansas’s John McClellan. It ended with Army attorney Joseph Welch’s famous putdown of Joe McCarthy, whose bedroom slippers Pryor had fetched four years earlier, for relentlessly attacking a young lawyer at the hearing: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough! Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Pryor concluded that the very decent Cherry had been a poor politician who did not sense the great shift in public attitudes and was unable to rally voters against a smart but unprincipled politician. An even bigger mistake had been the unfortunate campaign line “we’re going to get the deadheads off the welfare rolls.” Faubus made him look cruel.

After Cherry’s humiliation, a bitter Pryor decided that politics was miserable business and changed his major from political science to business administration. He took courses in accounting, banking and statistics but found them tedious and boring. Then he became violently ill with a strange malady that required multiple surgeries—he withered to 130 pounds and partially lost his eyesight—that cost him a year of school.

He returned to the university in 1955 as a government major again. From his arrival, he was active in student government, including serving as a senator. Led by Pryor, Ray Thornton and others who would later seek state executive, legislative and judicial offices, the students took a special interest in the conflagration over integration that was growing at Little Rock, which was under federal court orders to start desegregating its schools in the fall. A number of punitive bills to head off the desegregation consumed the lawmakers in the January-March session—notably the creation of a state sovereignty commission, which was based on the long-repudiated theory of John C. Calhoun that states could interpose their sovereignty between the federal government and the people. Pryor and one of his many college roommates, Kenneth C. Danforth of El Dorado, the editor of the campus newspaper, The Traveler, and later a journalist for the Arkansas Gazette, Time magazine and The National Geographic, drove to Little Rock to carry the students’ message to the lawmakers and the state that the legislation trampled upon the human rights of American citizens, who would be criminalized for even expressing the view that Blacks and those who might sympathize with them were entitled to equality and free expression and assembly. Pryor was embittered by the experience that day but, according to his memoir, the stayover at the Marion Hotel and association with the legislators and lobbyists, sharpened his understanding that politics and government—in Ouachita County, Little Rock, or Washington, D.C.—did not follow the examples in civics textbooks.

He left Fayetteville with his degree but could not find a job. The Gazette would not hire him, even when he volunteered to work free for a few months to prove his worth. Later, as a lawmaker and law student, he would be the Gazette’s Fayetteville correspondent. He married Barbara Jean Lunsford of Fayetteville, a classmate, and in late 1957 started a weekly newspaper, the Ouachita Citizen, with a printing press acquired from a local businessman. His wife and mother wrote weekly columns and reported, and Pryor sold advertisements and wrote editorials, often criticizing local government officials but mainly Gov. Faubus and legislative houses that went along with everything Faubus sought to do. The city’s daily newspaper, like most others around Arkansas after the school crisis, rarely took issue with the governor and the legislature. Faubus took pleasure in taunting Pryor and his little paper. At a big rally at Camden in his 1958 race against the meatpacker Chris Finkbeiner, whom Pryor supported, Faubus held up copies of Life and Time magazines and Pryor’s little paper, all of which had made Faubus look bad.

Life is for people who can’t read,” Faubus said. “Time is for people who can’t see, and the Ouachita Citizen is for people who can’t think.” The crowd roared and Pryor crawled in his car and went home.

But in 1960 Pryor told the county’s representative, a family friend, that if he did not begin to oppose Faubus on legislation he was going to run against him. The representative demurred and Pryor ran against him. He was 26 years old. Pryor’s memoir said he got elected mainly owing to the relentless campaigning of Barbara, carrying their infant son, David, with her as she went door to door across the county asking people to please vote for her husband. The family briefly moved to Little Rock. They sold the newspaper in 1962. He was elected twice more, in 1962 and 1964, while attending law school at Fayetteville when the legislature was not in session. He finished law school in 1964.

Except for his votes, Pryor’s legislative record was unremarkable, which was not unusual for new legislators. A Civil War buff, Pryor read about battles in South Arkansas and at his first session in February 1961 he introduced and passed a bill creating Poison Springs Battlefield State Park about eight miles from his home. It was the site of one of the Confederates’ few big victories in Arkansas, a victory most notable for the slaughter of a Kansas infantry regiment that included former slaves. The Confederates took no prisoners and used wagons to crush the skulls of the captured Black men.

Pryor became one of a handful of liberals who jousted with Faubus and the legislative “Old Guard” on a wide variety of reforms. Called “the Young Turks” in the media, Pryor, Virgil Butler, Sterling R. Cockrill Jr., Jim Brandon, Hardy W. Croxton, Ray S. Smith Jr. and Hayes C. McClerkin introduced legislation outlawing the poll tax, reforming election laws, overhauling county purchasing and spending (Pryor had been on a grand jury investigating government fraud in Ouachita County), convening a constitutional convention, and overhauling highway administration. They got nowhere with the legislation. In 1961, Pryor introduced a bill to require competitive bidding on county purchases of more than $300, but he could get only few votes for it each year. Faubus had another legislator, Harry Colay of Magnolia, put his name on a similar bill in 1965, it passed, and Faubus signed it.

Pryor opened a law practice in 1964 at Camden with his friend Harry Barnes. He liked to mention a case where he represented a man in a dispute over who owned a coon dog. It was finally resolved by bringing the disputed mutt into the courtroom, which wandered around until it spotted Pryor’s client and put a paw on his knee. The judge immediately awarded him custody. For a different reason, the Arkansas Gazette cartoonist George Fisher later always put a happy coon dog at Pryor’s side. But Pryor never got to practice a lot of law.

Faubus’s enmity toward Pryor took a bizarre turn in the summer of 1965. Late in life, Faubus and Pryor would cement a friendship, and he told Pryor that one of the joys of his life had been setting in motion the events that year which sealed Pryor’s long career. In law school at Fayetteville, Pryor had become a close friend of Faubus’s son, Farrell, a shy, portly and tormented young man who would take his own life in 1977 at the age of 36. Farrell had felt shunned and ridiculed by the other students and some of the faculty. The two students studied, played golf, drank beer and got their law degrees together.

In July 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Oren Harris, the South Arkansas congressman, to a federal judgeship, creating a congressional vacancy that Faubus was supposed to fill for the last 16 months of Harris’s term by calling a special election. It was Pryor’s dream, but there was no time to put together a campaign organization throughout the large Fourth District. State Auditor Jimmie “Red” Jones, who was known to every voter in the state, would be the automatic winner. Pryor mentioned his dilemma to his friend Farrell. He would learn later that Farrell told his dad that Pryor had helped him get his law degree, was the only person at the university who befriended him and about the only true friend he ever had.

Faubus dawdled about calling the special election for weeks and finally announced that the district did not really need a voting representative for the next year and a half, so he called the special election for the same day as the general election in November 1966. Voters would simultaneously fill the seat for the last two months of the year but also the following two years—two elections for the same seat on the same day. It gave Pryor more than a year to build a campaign organization. Red Jones then chose not to run because he would have to give up his safe lifetime job at the Capitol for a risky congressional election. Pryor won the special election and the general election handily. He defeated Richard S. Arnold of Texarkana, a future federal district and appellate judge, and three other prominent politicians from around the district, John Harris Jones of Pine Bluff, Charles L. “Chuck” Honey of Prescott and Dean Murphy of Hope.

 Pryor’s three terms in the seniority-driven House of Representatives were hardly notable, except for a controversy that he engineered—a crusade over the mistreatment of the elderly and disabled in nursing homes—and his personal dilemma over the Vietnam War, which he eventually came to oppose.

His mother told him that after visiting friends in nursing homes over the years she had concluded that the warehousing of people in the profit-driven industry had to be a national scandal rather than a local one. Now that her son was a congressman, he ought to do something about it. Having little else to do as a freshman, Pryor started volunteering on weekends as an orderly in nursing homes in the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland and Virginia, and recording the lack of staffing and lapses in medical care that he saw. His mother was right. Nursing homes often were just profitable warehouses for those waiting for the grave. Government inspectors often gave owners notice of their inspections, which rarely found lapses and, when they did, nothing was done about them. The industry had lobbyists who kept Pryor’s congressional colleagues and other government monitors at bay.

Pryor made a speech on the House floor revealing his secret work. He said he had encountered only two nursing homes where he would put his mother, but he couldn’t have afforded either one on his $42,500 salary. He was attacked by Maryland’s state mental-health director and people in the industry. Pryor called for the House to create a select committee on nursing homes and homes for the aged. A majority of the House voted for his resolution, but it was nonbinding and Congress did nothing. The House, led by the 80-year-old Mississippian who headed the Rules Committee, would not provide space or staffing for the committee. Pryor decided to do the work himself, after finding a vacant lot beside a gasoline station near the Capitol. The station’s owner found two house trailers that became the site for Pryor’s investigations and hearings. Pryor tried and failed to set up a permanent Committee on Aging, as the Senate had done in 1959. President Richard M. Nixon joined Pryor’s cause in 1971, deploring conditions in nursing homes and proposing to end payments to substandard homes.

 In 1974, two years after Pryor left, the House joined the cause and established the Select Committee on Aging. For the next 50 years, Congress, federal and state administrators and the industry would wage a continuous battle over standards of care for the aged and the degree of regulation that government should provide.

When Pryor went to Washington, the Vietnam War had engaged the United States for ten years. (President Eisenhower sent the first US troops in 1955 and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had raised the commitment.) After the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Congress gave Johnson new authority to dramatically expand America’s commitment, still without a declaration of war. By 1968, congressional and public opposition to the war had grown. Vice President Hubert Humphrey asked Pryor to make a short speech to the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago—Humphrey was the presidential nominee—in support of the Vietnam plank, an oblique statement that neither endorsed nor opposed the war effort. Pryor went to the convention as an Arkansas delegate and had already alienated other Southern congressmen, especially Mississippians, by voting as a member of the Credentials Committee to seat Mississippi’s Freedom Democrats—Blacks and liberals—instead of the white delegation picked by the party in Mississippi. In his two-minute speech, he urged an end to the war but called for unity and wisdom. Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright had already decided America’s war policies were improvident and conducted hearings that began to turn public sentiment against the war.

President Johnson, who had had misgivings about the war from the first, had then made himself the champion of the war against communism after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. He became more and more sorrowful and morose as tens of thousands of Americans a year died, but he could not become the first president to lose a war. In 1967, Johnson asked Pryor to fly to Texas with him for rallies to pump up flagging support in his home state. Pryor would write that Johnson seemed glum and introspective the whole trip. Pryor understood why. As they were flying back to Washington at night in Air Force One, Pryor looked out the window and figured that the lights below were his hometown of Camden.

“Mr. President,” he said, “it looks like we might be flying directly over Camden, Arkansas. That’s my hometown. If you look straight down at the ground, you might see Jim’s Café on Washington Street.”

The president leaned across him and looked out the window. He slumped back in his seat and shook his head.

“God a’mighty!” he sighed. “I wish I was at Jim’s Café right now.” He was silent the rest of the trip.

For Pryor, the climax to the moral struggle over the war was more personal, as he would recall in A Pryor Commitment and oral histories. On an airline trip from Washington to Arkansas he fell into conversation with a young serviceman from his district who was headed to Vietnam. Many months later, he got on a plane for the same flight back home and recognized the young man, in uniform. He asked the soldier about his tour of duty. The soldier pulled back a blanket across his lap, which showed that he had lost a leg in combat.

 “Congressman Pryor,” the young man said, “I would not have minded losing my leg, if only someone had told me why we were there in the first place.”

Pryor sent constituents a newsletter announcing that he would thereafter oppose any further funding of the war and calling for troops to be brought home. It was not an altogether popular step. At a fish fry at the Carlisle High School stadium soon afterward, a man ran out of the crowd, jumped on Pryor’s back and began hitting him and calling him a traitor. Mayor Bobby Glover, later a state representative and then a senator, pulled the man off Pryor. Two decades later Pryor would write a letter to his son Scott, explaining his dilemma over the war and the consequences. He likened it to the contemporary dilemma over the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1972, McClellan, by then chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which had funded the development of the navigation dams on the Arkansas River in Arkansas and Oklahoma, announced he was running for a sixth term. His hearings on labor racketeering had made enemies of organized labor. Unions representing wood, paper, oil, chemical and electrical workers in South Arkansas had supplied much of Pryor’s political strength. He announced that he was running for the seat, too, along with Ted Boswell, a liberal trial lawyer, and Foster Johnson, a book salesman who for the third straight Senate election went around towns wearing clanging metal campaign signs over his shoulders. Pryor survived a rough campaign in which he was accused of being a friend of draft dodgers and a supporter of gun control. (As a freshman legislator, he had sponsored a bill making it illegal to carry a loaded weapon in a vehicle inside city limits—a reaction to a neighboring boy accidentally killing himself with a loaded shotgun on a Safeway parking lot.) But Pryor was a close second in the preferential primary and entered the runoff as a heavy favorite, certain to get all the votes that had been cast for the more liberal Boswell. W. R. “Witt” Stephens, the gas baron and investment banker, summoned a meeting of the state’s banking and business leaders with McClellan in the board room of the Union National Bank at Little Rock where everyone ponied up tens of thousands of dollars for McClellan or pledged to collect it.

The two-week runoff ended with the famous televised debate. McClellan, wearing a white suit, taunted Pryor for his support by unions, particularly
“labor bosses” from outside the state. Pryor responded that the money reported on his campaign finance forms came from the cookie jars and overall pockets of hardworking men. McClellan responded that Pryor had gotten $79,000 from “bosses” from outside the state.

“David, David,” he taunted, shaking a finger, “this is no cookie-jar nickels and dimes!”

Pryor’s campaign gifts paled alongside the money from businessmen and bankers in McClellan’s campaign, but McClellan’s commanding performance showed him as anything but a doddering 76-year-old man. But his victory in the election the next week depended more on the massive get-out-the-vote effort by political leaders commanded by Witt Stephens. Pryor got only 20,000 more votes than in the first primary, McClellan 22,000 more. On election night, Pryor faced the TV cameras early, conceded and said the voters had elected the right man, a typical Pryor reflection on his opponents.

Witt Stephens was watching television that night and was struck by the Pryor’s magnanimity. Two years later, when Gov. Dale Bumpers announced he was not running for a third term as governor but instead for the Senate—against Fulbright—Stephens picked up the phone and called Pryor, suggesting that he run for governor. Pryor said he was about to call Stephens and urge him to run (they had served in the House of Representatives together as freshmen in 1961). Stephens said no, he was serious, and promised his full organizational support if Pryor announced. He did, and so did former governor Faubus and Lt. Gov. Bob Riley. Faubus, making his second comeback attempt since retiring in 1966, was shocked to discover that nearly his entire political machine marshaled by Stephens had been diverted to Pryor. Pryor won without a runoff. For the rest of his life, Faubus remained bitter about his old friend and supporter’s betrayal while also warming to the young man whom his son Farrell had asked him to help.

Providence seemed always to shine on Pryor at election time—but with actual governance, not so much. Bumpers had raised income and motor-fuel taxes and closed tax loopholes. Furious economic growth filled the state treasury so that Bumpers could enhance public schools and higher education, build many state parks, improve highways, expand medical care and build hospitals and college classrooms. Bumpers called a special legislative session to spend the big surplus that had accumulated in the treasury. The moment that Pryor moved into the Governor’s Mansion the nation was hit with a long recession complicated by inflation, and the treasury was depleted. Pryor had to slash budgets and freeze hiring even for filling job vacancies. In his four years, Bumpers had carried out all the reforms prescribed by the liberal group Democrats for Arkansas during the late 1960s—nearly everything but a new state constitution, which became Pryor’s biggest goal. It was never fulfilled.

Pryor proposed a dramatic refashioning of state spending—a 25 percent reduction in state income tax rates and empowerment of local governments to implement the income tax themselves to address all the problems of cities, counties and schools. The Arkansas Plan, as it was called, consumed a legislative session. Pryor traveled the state promoting the plan, explaining to a group at Jonesboro that he was cutting state taxes and allowing people locally to use it in whatever way pleased them—jokingly suggesting that if they didn’t want to levy taxes to build roads and streets, they could spend the money on “a new coon dog.” Gazette cartoonist George Fisher labeled it the “Coon Dog Plan” and thereafter always put a grinning mutt at Pryor’s side. The Arkansas Plan failed.

Another passion was litter. Pryor hated the trash along the state’s streets and roads. He started a “Pick Up Arkansas” campaign and proposed a bill levying a small tax on soft drinks, pet foods, newspapers and plastic wrappers to discourage littering; the money would be used for highway and street cleanup. Local governments were encouraged to dispose of solid waste like abandoned cars and refrigerators. The bill passed, but a letter from the state Revenue Department to businesses on how to collect the tax warned that they might go to prison for failing to remit the litter tax. Legislators who had voted for the bill heard from merchants and demanded that Pryor call them back into session to repeal the bill before it took effect on July 1. He did but always regretted it when he saw sandwich wrappers and soft-drink containers strewn along streets and on the roadsides.

Constitutional revision, an obsession with an aging legislator who had been the leader of the Young Turks, was Pryor’s biggest failure. Voters had defeated a liberalized constitution drafted by a popularly elected convention in 1970. Pryor decided to try again after taking office in 1975. The solution had to be to avoid the pitched battles over a few issues such as the state’s antiunion law (the Right to Work Amendment), usury, judicial elections and county-government reform. He offered a bill calling for the appointment, by the legislature and the governor, of 35 delegates who would write a new constitution but leave those and a few other features of the 1874 constitution untouched and then submit the document to the voters in September. On the day the delegates convened, the state Supreme Court voted four to three to abolish the convention because the delegates were prohibited from changing some parts of the constitution. It had to be all or nothing. In 1977, Pryor tried again with a bill that called for the election of 100 delegates in 1978 and a vote on the document in 1980. But voters defeated that new constitution decisively.

McClellan died in November 1977 and Pryor appointed Kaneaster Hodges of Newport, a lawyer and minister, to finish his term, which ended Jan. 1, 1979. Pryor soon announced that he would run for the seat. So did US Rep. Jim Guy Tucker of Little Rock and Rep. Ray H. Thornton Jr. of Sheridan. It would be a race between three friends and philosophical triplets. A. C. Grigson, a Texarkana accountant, joined the race claiming to be McClellan’s philosophical successor. Pryor barely led in the first primary and Tucker edged Thornton for the second spot. The runoff would also be amiable until its final days when Tucker accused Pryor’s campaign manager of trying to persuade a friend on the state Public Service Commission to approve a rate increase for Witt Stephens’s western Arkansas gas company in exchange for the Stephens family’s support in the runoff. Pryor won by a safe margin. Tucker later shrugged off his defeat. No one, he said, was going to believe that David Pryor did anything even slightly deceitful, and wouldn’t blame him if he had.

The Senate years were Pryor’s most pleasurable. His Arkansas colleague, Dale Bumpers, was a close friend and an ally on most but not all issues.

During the eight-year administration of President Ronald Reagan, both senators opposed much of the Reagan program, including the tax cuts for the wealthy in 1981 and later the big binge of military spending. Bumpers, a deficit hawk, publicly opposed the tax cuts, and Pryor finally joined him by voting “present” on the roll call, the same as a no vote. The month after the tax cuts passed the nation fell into a deep 14-month recession with double-digit unemployment, the deepest since the 1930s, although the charming Reagan was never blamed for the longest and deepest recession in modern times or the staggering budget deficits and debt that he ran up for eight years or for the repeated tax increases that the Reagan administration described as “revenue enhancements” instead of taxes.

But Pryor also became a leading critic of Pentagon spending, calling attention to such excesses as the orders for thousands of ballpeen hammers and toilet seats at hugely inflated prices. He also veered from Bumpers and the state’s four congressmen in his opposition to the development of binary chemical weapons. He opposed developing and storing the chemical weapons at the Pine Bluff Arsenal. Vice President George H. W. Bush, a friend who went to Congress the same time as Pryor, went to the Senate to cast the tie-breaking vote for the arsenal.

Even before Reagan’s election, the Pentagon already suspected that Pryor was not a votary, especially after he called attention to the perils of the Titan II missile system after a series of dangerous failures around the country and two catastrophes in Arkansas. When the Defense Department developed the Titan II system—54 underground intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads—US Rep. Wilbur D. Mills agreed to vote for President Kennedy’s tax cuts if he agreed to put a ring of 18 of the new missiles in Arkansas. A fire in a silo with a nuclear warhead near Searcy in 1965 killed 53 workers who were retrofitting the missile’s fuel system. In January 1978, a fuel transporter at a missile silo at Damascus overheated and sent thousands of gallons of deadly nitrogen tetroxide vapor over the countryside. In 1979, after more such leaks in the Arkansas and Kansas missile networks, Pryor and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas were regretting having Titan sites in their states and talked about whether they should be anywhere near American citizens.

After rumors of incidents at the silos, Pryor in the summer of 1980 did his own secret investigation and found nine major incidents in the previous 14 months that could have endangered Arkansas lives around the silos. Clearly, the Air Force had been lying about the safety at the Titan sites in Arkansas, Kansas and New Mexico. Pryor gave the detailed results of investigation of the eight incidents to two Arkansas Gazette reporters, who described the incidents and Pryor’s conclusions. Surrounding residents were never informed about any of them, despite an Air Force vow that residents would always be informed.

Pryor and Dole went to Congress to push an amendment to the Defense Department appropriation that called for an early-warning system around all the silos. The amendment passed. Three days later, on Sept. 18, 1980, the missile in a silo at Damascus exploded, blowing the nuclear warhead and two technicians into the air. One of the men died almost instantly and the other’s health was permanently impaired. Two years later, the Pentagon decided to abandon the Titans for more advanced, and perhaps safer, missile systems. But Pryor’s negativity about defense weaponry and spending took a political toll, at least nationally.

The payoff came in 1984, when the White House and the party leadership persuaded Congressman Ed Bethune of Searcy—the Pryors and Bethunes were social friends—to run against Pryor with the promise of financial backing. More than 20 Reagan administration officials and Republican senators came to Arkansas for fund-raising events for Bethune. Rev. Jerry Falwell, the right-wing leader, came to Arkansas to call for Pryor’s defeat. Pryor eschewed the same strategy, feeling that Democrats from out of the state would hurt rather than help him. Bethune’s ads said Pryor had voted against the popular former movie star, Ronnie Reagan, on 77 percent of the issues in the Senate. The Saturday before the election Reagan, who was approaching a landslide win of his own, made a speech at the packed Excelsior Hotel ballroom.

“Don’t send me back to Washington alone,” Reagan said with the smiling Bethune beside him. Reagan carried Arkansas with 60 percent of the vote. Pryor got 57 percent.

In 1994, Pryor ran for re-election and no Democrat or Republican opposed him—a rarity in any state. Betty White, a homeless woman, ran as a write-in and got 832 votes. (Pryor’s son Mark also had no opposition, except for a Green Party candidate, in his second race for the same seat in 2008.)

Pryor spent much of his second term fighting for a taxpayer’s bill of rights, to curb abuses by the Internal Revenue Service. Reagan signed Pryor’s bill into law in 1988.

Pryor’s last crusade was against the pharmaceutical industry. In 1990, he introduced the Pharmaceutical Access and Prudent Purchasing Act, which sought to end the spiral of drug prices; it would have allowed Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate with drug makers on prices that would be charged to Medicare and Medicaid patients. The industry fought back.

Pryor had a massive heart attack on April 15, 1991. The illness hobbled him for the rest of his career. Majority Leader George Mitchell and Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas took up the cause of drug pricing but they never were able to pass a bill. President Joe Biden finally took up Pryor’s cause in 2023.

Another passionate reform effort was to end the electoral college so that the winner of the popular vote would always be the next president. The most important job in the whole democracy was president, but it also was the only political job in the country, from members of the county quorum court to the top, that might go to the loser. In 1992, sensing that the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot could tilt the election of George H. W. Bush over Bill Clinton regardless of the size of Clinton’s election victory, Pryor again introduced a Senate resolution for a constitutional amendment to end the electoral college and assure that election winners always took office. The Senate never sent the amendment to the states for ratification. Only one election loser had ever failed to become president—Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878 —but two subsequent losers, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald J. Trump in 2016, became president. Trump lost the actual balloting to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes.

Like Bumpers, Pryor found the relationships in Congress profoundly different after radio provocateur Rush Limbaugh and Republican House leader Newt Gingrich turned American politics into a war of saintly Republicans vs. evil Democrats. Friendly Republicans departed and were replaced by politicians who called Democrats socialists and radicals who were out to destroy the country. Pryor did not run again in 1996; Bumpers made the same choice in 1998. The Capitol, they said, was no longer an enjoyable place to be.

Pryor’s retirement did not end his engagement with politics and government. In 2000, he was director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He taught courses at the University of Arkansas and gave his unexpended campaign funds to form the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History at the university. He was the inaugural dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at Little Rock, serving for two years. After the murder of Bill Gwatney in 2008, he was chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party for a spell. In 2009, Gov. Mike Beebe appointed him to a 10-year term on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, where he did not enhance his popularity by protesting the lavish spending on athletics and stadium additions. A massive stroke in 2016 curtailed his activities for good.


Ernie Dumas is a former editorial writer and capitol reporter for the Arkansas Gazette and a frequent columnist for the Arkansas Times.  He is widely recognized as an authority on Arkansas politics and a fount of information and contributor to the Arkansas Encyclopedia.