It is reported that “faithful adherence to legal principle sometimes [takes] a back seat to the more compelling demands of politics.” This appears to be a pointed assessment of a little-publicized controversy surrounding the pardon of four convicts by last year’s Acting Governor of Arkansas, dentist Jerry Jewell. As president pro tempore of the state senate, Jewell became the acting governor—and officially the state’s first black governor—when Governor Jim Guy Tucker left Arkansas for four days to attend Bill Clinton’s inauguration. But back to the assessment.

Though the “compelling demands of politics” refers to a pardoning of four Arkansas prisoners, in that instance the pardon came from King Louis XV in 1756. The prisoners were deserters from the Arkansas garrison, one of whom had murdered a soldier on the way out of the fort. Captured by the Quapaws, they found an advocate in Quapaw Chief Guedetonguay. The chief, in fact, traveled to New Orleans and reminded the French Governor Kerlerec of the many ways in which the Quapaws had befriended the French and fought on their behalf. Failure to grant the pardons risked a Quapaw revolt. Governor Kerlerec eventually relented and forwarded his decision to the appropriate French minister at Versailles, who gained King Louis’ reluctant sanction. Kerlerec was then admonished to be careful of letting the “savages . . . set a tone that accords neither with the King’s authority nor with the good of the colony.” The King’s ministers proved to be both principled and, above all, politic in dealing with the complexities of crime and politics on the Arkansas frontier. More than two centuries later, Arkansas politics—and crime—are still complicated.

Arkansas life is nothing if not interpersonal and interconnected. Mountain folk run a different course: independent, rugged, survivalistic. Still, the oldest of Arkie jokes asks, “If my wife and I get divorced will we still be cousins?” Everyone will ultimately, by the very nature of living in Arkansas, encounter or intersect with the life of everyone else. After all, who in Little Rock hasn’t found himself either jogging with Clinton or in line for coffee with him at the downtown McDonald’s? I’ve even waited behind him in the McDonald’s drive-through lane while he tried to get his Lincoln Continental unstuck from the circle drive. Only last year, in fact.

On the day of the presidential inauguration Jewell granted executive clemency to four convicts—actually two were already out on parole. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the daily newspaper in Little Rock, reported in its lead article that Acting Governor Jewell, when questioned on the day of the pardons, couldn’t recall either the first names of the convicts or the nature of their crimes.

Actually, Jewell’s choice of men to pardon reflected a cross-section of Arkansas criminality: Joe Wesley, age 54, manslaughter; Gary Bryant, 39, burglary and forgery; Billy Ray Davis, 40, murder; and, oh yes. Tommy McIntosh, 29, cocaine possession. I say “oh yes” because Mr, McIntosh’s father, Robert “Say” McIntosh, is the most outspoken and most colorful black activist in the state.

Say McIntosh has mastered the Hegelian art of Arkansas politics. (Don’t sell us short down here; after all we— you?—put a Rhodes scholar in the White House.) For Hegel, negation was the driving force of reality, right? I mean, being was static until injected with a healthy dose of nothingness, which resulted in becoming—hence the dynamism of existence, history, and politics. Well, Arkansas politics is injected with big doses of Hegelian negations and nothingness. The biggest thing around here in the past three years was probably what Say McIntosh didn’t do one day. He declared, shortly after the green light was given by the Supreme Court, that he was going to burn the American flag on the steps of the state capitol. He gave us about two weeks’ warning. Why, every pickup from the hills of Arkansas rolled into town that day just to see if Say would do it.

Hundreds gathered; scores of police and state highway troopers. Hey, we might even have a riot. Say pulled out the flag, started to light the fire, then gave a speech, announcing that for the common good, to which he was devoutly dedicated, he was not going to burn the flag. Pictures all over the front pages of newspapers; lead story on the six o’clock TV news. Not doing something at just the right time is big news and big politics in Arkansas.

When I served as manager of human resources for my brother-in-law’s oil company four years back. Say came to us wanting to lease one of our Shell stations. We had dealt with Say before, and we were woefully aware of his own unique schedule of rental payments: staggered intervals. To press Say on anything is to risk having a civil rights suit filed against you. Say even had a suit against Clinton until recently for back payment of services he claimed he rendered during Clinton’s campaign for governor in 1990, the same year that Clinton said he would not run for President in 1992. Say claimed that Clinton owed him about $20,000 for campaign services, which probably boiled down to McIntosh not spoiling the campaign party.

Could be: it took Clinton till January of this year to pay back $100,000 owed to Perry County Bank, and Perry County is nowhere. At least Say is in Little Rock. Don’t get me wrong about the Perry County Bank. After all, a friend of mine, Herby Branscum, owns it. Now Herby was appointed highway commissioner by Clinton before the big run. No complaints here, mind you. You see, Herby was instrumental in getting my sister-in-law elected County Judge of Perry County. Remember: all Arkansas life is interconnected.

Back to the Perry County Bank. People in Perry County don’t really mind extending credit for a while longer than most folks. But Say don’t extend much credit to nobody. Yet don’t forget that the law of the land here is neighborliness. Whatever you feel compelled to do, do it with some friendly contagion. Why last summer while I was going to pick my kids up at Sunday school at Immanuel Baptist—Clinton’s church—there was Say discharging his moral fervor by plastering every car windshield around the church with flyers recounting Clinton’s moral failings in graphic depiction. The flyer included photos of Clinton’s supposed mulatto, illegitimate son and xeroxed copies of Gennifer Flowers’ Penthouse photos. Long ago I found it was best to preempt Say. Greet him heartily, with a smile, and you get back the warmest response possible: “How y’all doin’?” Crossing the big ethnic divide suddenly with another person can be elating, feeling like a member of a Sartrean groupe en fusion. Some of the brethren confront Say over his literature and Say responds in kind. Not me; I ask for the literature, thank him, and tuck it away before my kids see Ms. Flowers xeroxed. Besides, since we’ve had Chelsea over to our house and helped child-sit for her while her daddy and momma ran for the presidency, the kids might be upset to see moral charges lodged against her daddy.

What are the alleged “facts” about the pardons? According to Jewell in an interview on February 14, he had no plans whatsoever to pardon anybody when he became acting governor on Sunday, January 17. No one spoke to him about the pardoning. Not Clinton; not Tucker; not Say McIntosh, nor any of his kin.

So what did happen? Sometime, Jewell’s not sure when, between Sunday and Wednesday of his four-day term as governor, he got to thinking about the inequities of the prison system in Arkansas: especially how it turned young, first-time offenders into hardened criminals; how it reflected the racism in Arkansas. Jewell observed the following on television: “One of the basic ingredients of society is racism, whether you admit it or not. Look around Arkansas: What do blacks own? run? Do they really own a firstclass service station or fast-food store? No! The ugly face of racism can defeat you.” Jewell then got to thinking about racial injustice as manifested in the prison system. “Our legal system is an unfair system. Fines and sentences depend on who you are.” Actually, Jewell claims he acted under the guidance of divine providence: “I believe in the man upstairs. Whatever I did was guided by the man upstairs.”

So what did divine providence provide Jewell that got him thinking about doing some pardoning? Well, it so happens that before Governor Tucker left for the inauguration he was reviewing some files from the parole board and, goodness, he may have left one of those files on his desk as he left town, meaning of course to return it unapproved to the board. This is by Tucker’s own account, mind you, in a televised news conference. So, Jewell arrives in the governor’s office, casts about for something to do and, mercy, discovers two files on convicts being recommended for clemency, one in jail, another on parole. Claims Jewell: “I did not decide before these files were on my desk to pardon anybody.” Again, Jewell claims there were two files; Tucker admitted one.

Those two files got Jewell curious, so he sent for two more files. Now he had four. Guess it’s better to mull over the inequities of the Arkansas prison system with four files in front of you than a measly two. He tried to recall whose files these were in the televised interview and could only recall three of the four names. Now, if providence played a hand in all this, it was certainly reasonable of Him to make sure the good acting governor didn’t pardon Tommy McIntosh alone, because Say’s hand in this would loom mighty large in the public mind and all hell would likely break out. What does Say’s son Tommy have to say about it all? First off. Tommy was sentenced to jail for 50 years in 1987 for being caught in a van with two others and some cocaine. Tommy was 23 years old at the time. Was Tommy a young drug kingpin? Tommy denies this. If he was a drug kingpin then Tommy wants to know why “I’m the only kingpin that don’t have a car, that don’t have a house, or fancy rings on my fingers? No way I could have gotten 50 years on the first offense.” Jewell maintains that Tommy’s “sentence was too great for the crime. Who knows if he was set up? The sentence was too great because of whose son he was.” Claims Say: “The sentence was about me!”

Say also claims that Clinton and Tucker prearranged the pardon, and that in return Jewell agreed to keep silent about the deal. In fact, despite some dispatched flyers. Say himself kept rather silent during the presidential election. He publicly denies there was any deal but told Max Brantley, a local newspaper editorialist, that Tommy’s situation “has been taken care of.”

Arkansas politics is indeed driven by negations. More is accomplished by what you don’t know or do than by what you claim to know or do. It’s good ole boy Southern politics and style, stretching across ethnic lines, to play down any air of pretense or knowledge. It’s death in Arkansas politics to act like a Flannery O’Connor “innerlecshual.” Jewell initially denied that he knew either the first names or crimes of those he pardoned. Smart guy. That ignorance was to downplay Tommy McIntosh’s pardon. Tucker claims he knew nothing of this until his staff contacted him in Washington and warned him on the day before the actual pardons. Why didn’t he contact Jewell at once to dissuade him? Well, Tucker went to bed thinking it was a “done deal,” only to find out it wasn’t done till the next day. And no one knows what Clinton knew. Why it’s a downright historical coup, n’est-ce pas, that we know that King Louis XV knew what he knew of the four Arkansas pardons of 1756.