BY ROY REED
ARKANSANS who dispute at politics like to use the direct method if possible, and only when that fails do they turn to subtlety, which they mistrust. Thus it was natural that the Conway County courthouse gang, after being bearded by the new newspaper publisher for eight months, and tiring of it, responded straightforwardly. The new publisher was stopped on a downtown sidewalk one afternoon and thrashed. It was done not by a hired hand, in the Eastern fashion, but by the county tax assessor, W. O. ("Bus”) Hice, who is a man of substance in the county government and who weighs 220 pounds.
Looking back, it is hard to see how Mr. Hice could have been misunderstood. He told the publisher as he turned him loose, “If you put anything more in that paper, I’ll whip you every time I see you.”
The publisher, a young man named Eugene Henry Wirges, mistook the warning for a challenge. Instead of laying off, he began bearding the gang in earnest, and before long it was clear that the bestrun political machine in Arkansas had a fight on its hands.
That was in 1961. It would be a mistake to think of the tumult that ensued as a backwoods brawl between an impetuous cub and a crowd of unlettered courthouse toughs. After the direct confrontation on the sidewalk, both sides brought increasing sophistication to the contest, and as it wore on they brought an astonishing and persistent resourcefulness. It was the resourcefulness, the dalliance with subtlety, that finally turned this smalltown political dispute into a memorable public controversy and brought it to the attention of newspapermen and politicians far and wide.
The fight is over now, at least temporarily. Wirges lost his newspaper in December. The courthouse gang is not bearded anymore, and peace, you might say, has been restored. It probably should be said at the same time that the First Amendment to the Constitution, along with Wirges, has taken a shellacking.
The county machine, driven to the wall, finally resorted to an instrument so antique it seemed new. Wirges was put out of business with the libel law.
Young Wirges had edited daily and weekly papers in other Arkansas towns before moving to Morrilton, the county seat of Conway County. He had learned much about small-town politics. He spent his first three years at Morrilton minding his own business, taking care of his family (he and his wife have five children), and watching.
Three well-known Arkansas political leaders, all friends of the administration of Governor Orval E. Faubus, are among the overseers of the Conway County machine. Loid Sadler, a Morrilton businessman, is Conway County’s representative in the state legislature. Nathan Gordon of Morrilton is a lawyer, a World War II hero, and the lieutenant governor of the state. Paul Van Dalsem of Perryville represents neighboring Perry County in the state House of Representatives and is generally considered the boss of the legislature. He is connected with the Conway County machine through friendship and business.
Sheriff Marlin Hawkins is the administrative head of the Conway County machine. When Arkansas reformers need an unsightly example, they mention the sheriff of Conway County. However, it probably would have to be said that Sheriff Hawkins, like Shaw’s Lucifer, is not so black as he is painted. Mr. Hawkins is fifty and slightly rotund. As politicians go, he is shy. His public statements usually are literate, sometimes sensitively so. He has a glass eye, which exaggerates the appearance of good humor in his face and now and then tempts strangers into familiarity. His enemies occasionally forget or underestimate his loyalty to the Conway County political organization. Maintaining his constancy at home has called for a certain flexibility abroad, earning the sheriff a reputation in the state that often is described to the accompaniment of grins and sidelong glances. In short, Sheriff Hawkins does what needs to be done to take care of his home organization. Since the county’s chief export is votes, the sheriff has had to deal with first one and then another of the outside political forces that need votes. During one period, he pledged and faithfully delivered the vote of Conway County to a series of liberal causes, including the re-election of the famous moderate, former Congressman Brooks Hays. In those days, the liberals described the sheriff — with grins and sidelong glances — as good old Marlin. Eventually it became desirable for him to deliver the Conway County vote to the race-baiters and cotton-gin Babbitts of the Faubus organization. After that the liberals described Sheriff Hawkins as a threat to the democratic process.
Gene Wirges was among those who never saw any humor in Conway County politics. Instead of enjoying the spectacle, he spent his time studying it. He had the advantage at first of not being taken seriously, perhaps because of his appearance. He looks like a blue-eyed boy, even now, at age thirtyseven. His hair is blond, nearly white. He is friendly and easy to like. In the early days at Morrilton he exhibited almost everything that a weekly newspaper publisher needs — affability, good sense, energy. He had one shortcoming and it was, in the end, his undoing. Wirges was a born meddler. He had a compulsion to set things right. It is remarkable that he stayed out of trouble three years.
In the fall of 1960, eight months before Wirges’ sidewalk encounter with “Bus” Hice, some angry patrons of one of Conway County’s school districts petitioned for the recall of all members of their school board who were supported by the county machine. The insurgents asked Wirges for help. He responded with a series of front-page articles. To everybody’s surprise, the irate patrons won the recall election and set back the machine.
He ignored the warnings of his friends that it was dangerous to “rock the boat” and began to speak out editorially on other public affairs. He was especially keen for a change in Morrilton’s form of government from mayor-council to city-manager. The courthouse gang was keen against it. A special election was held, and when the votes were counted, change had been resisted rigorously.
It occurred to Wirges after that election that the organization had a miraculous way with the voters. He began studying its performance at the polls. After observing the results of several elections, all of which the machine won, Wirges made a discovery. The voters who were present on election day and went to the polls in person — the “live” voters, as Wirges came to call them — expressed varied opinions on the machine’s candidates front one election to another; but those who were absent on election day and cast absentee ballots were unusually loyal to the machine. On scrutiny, Wirges found that if it were not for the reliability of the voters who were not there, the machine would be in difficult circumstances. In election after election, the absentees, who were as numerous as they were faithful, made the difference between victory and defeat for the courthouse candidates. Wirges found that the absentee vote of Conway County typically ran as high as 10 and 11 percent of the total vote. By contrast, the electorate of nearby Pulaski County, the home of Little Rock, regularly voted only about 2 percent in absentia.
IN ONE remarkable election in December, 1962, a school board candidate backed by the Wirges faction apparently won the election when the votes from the “live” boxes were counted. Those who had come to the polling place to cast their votes favored the Wirges candidate 200 to 132 — a margin of 68 votes. But when the absentee ballots were counted, the Wirges man was swamped. The absentee voters had favored his opponent 143 to 9.
The Conway County Grand Jury has taken the position that Conway County elections are conducted for better or worse by mere men. Last November, the Grand Jury reported that it had considered the latest batch of evidence presented by Wirges and his friends and had found “no willful violations of election laws and no criminal intent present in the minds of election officials when they did engage in election irregularities.” The Grand Jury scolded the accusers for making “unfair, wrongful and unwarranted” charges. It deplored the atmosphere of excitement and ill feeling that temporarily had displaced the county’s “peaceful calm.”
During the two and a half years after the citymanager election at Morrilton, the Morrilton Democrat printed hundreds of examples of questionable practices in Conway County elections, ranging from spectacular mistakes in certifying totals to the outright manufacture of votes.
Sheriff Hawkins’ position through all this was unvarying: His success at the polls was due, not to violations of the election laws, but to “hard work and organization.”
Election irregularities were the main complaint of Wirges but not the only one. The Democrat consistently attacked the county machine at other points: its selective distribution of political largess, its monopoly on public office, political favoritism in spending county money, its use of county equipment on private property.
The Conway County machine did not react timidly to Wirges’ criticisms. Before encountering the tax assessor’s fists, Wirges learned the machine had other weapons.
Word got around during June, 1961, that Wirges had been prying and was to publish a series of articles exposing the machine early in July. Wirges was interrupted one day by a telephone call from the district prosecuting attorney, who said he was going to have to file criminal charges against Wirges for double-mortgaging his property. Wirges, startled, finally persuaded the prosecutor that he had not double-mortgaged anything. No charges were filed. The prosecutor explained later that his call had been prompted by Wirges’ creditors, and that he had not pursued it because the creditors had not pressed the matter. Wirges assumed that someone from the courthouse had stirred up his creditors.
Next, the state government paid a call, in the person of an Employment Security Division agent.
The agent wanted to know why Wirges was $600 behind on his unemployment insurance payments. Wirges turned the matter over to his wife, who handled the payroll, and went back to his exposé, thinking that the problem was being worked out.
On the day before the first of his series of articles was to appear, Wirges had another visitor, a deputy sheriff. The deputy said he was there to nail a notice on the door of the Democrat. “Notice of Public Auction,” it said. His paper was being posted for a sheriff’s sale.
A hurried telephone call got to the bottom of it.
Sheriff Hawkins was going to sell the Democrat to satisfy Wirges’ back payments to the state Employment Security Division. Wirges went to work and within a few hours had the situation in hand, this time with a firm agreement with the state agency. The sheriff was called off.
As the campaign against the machine accelerated, so did the machine’s response. An advertising boycott was attempted. The Democrat’s correspondents — typically rural housewives trying to pick up a few extra dollars — were harassed and urged to resign.
From the beginning it must have been obvious to all but the dimmest courthouse whittler that the Democrat had an Achilles’ heel as big as the side of a barn: debt. Wirges’ financial weakness was the machine’s main target once it became clear on both sides that the fight was to the finish.
On June 22, 1962, Wirges had another baleful visitor — Sheriff Hawkins himself, bearing a second Notice of Public Sale. The notice was nailed to the door, and for more than two weeks it appeared that despite Wirges’ desperate efforts, the paper would be sold at auction at 9 A.M., July 5.
This time the problem was more considerable than $600 in delinquent unemployment insurance contributions. To save his paper Wirges had to produce $11,187.72. Sometime earlier, he had bought a weekly newspaper at Jacksonville, Arkansas, near Little Rock. He had gone into debt for it, of course. He kept the paper only a short time and sold it. Unfortunately for Wirges, the new buyer liquidated the business almost at once and stopped making payments. Wirges was stuck with the unpaid balance, $11,187.72. The original owner got a court judgment for that amount, and it was to satisfy the judgment that the Democrat was being put on the auction block.
IT SEEMED to Wirges that there was a curious haste on the part of the authorities to get on with the administration of justice. He was not to learn the whole truth until sometime later.
Wirges petitioned the Conway County Circuit Court to stop the sale. The court, after a hearing on July 3, two days before the auction, declined.
Deliverance finally came — dramatically enough, on the Fourth of July. With less than a day remaining before the sheriff’s sale, a stranger who had heard of Wirges’ plight stepped in and bought the $11,187.72 judgment. The stranger, Dr. Stanley C. Gutowski of Perryville, said he was born in Russia and did not like boss rule. Gutowski was a Republican candidate for the legislature in neighboring Perry County, opposing the boss of the legislature, Representative Paul Van Dalsem. The doctor made it clear to Wirges that he need be in no hurry to repay the $11,187.72
When they went to pay the judgment, Wirges and Gutowski learned why Wirges’ creditor had become so anxious. Wirges no longer was indebted to the man he thought he was indebted to. Representative Van Dalsem, the ally of the Conway County courthouse gang and himself a victim of Wirges’ barbs in the Perry County News, quietly had bought the judgment against Wirges from the original creditor a few days earlier.
Wirges no sooner was out of the hot hands of the home authorities than he was threatened from a new direction. He had fallen perilously behind in his federal income tax payments and owed the Internal Revenue Service about $7000. To Wirges’ worried queries the agency replied that it did indeed have a proposed solution to his problem. The IRS would sell the Democrat at public auction to get its money.
Once again, Wirges was saved at the last minute. The deliverer this time was Arkansas’s most famous immigrant, Winthrop Rockefeller, the wealthy New Yorker who had moved to Arkansas in 1953 and established himself on a ranch in Conway County. As the top man in the Arkansas Republican Party, Rockefeller had been alarmed for some time by the condition of Conway County’s politics.
Rockefeller staved off the IRS auction by establishing an escrow account as large as Wirges’ tax bill and telling the IRS that if Wirges did not pay the debt, the escrow account would.
Rockefeller said, in what some took to be understatement, “It seemed to me there were political pressures being put on him that stifled freedom of the press.”
From the winter of 1962 on, Wirges was not fighting merely for freedom of the press. He was fighting for survival. That might have been some comfort to the courthouse leaders if their own position had been better. Among the country people of Arkansas a man occasionally is uncovered who is so without fear that it is said of him. “That son of a bitch would fight a circle saw.” Marlin Hawkins, whom no one ever called a coward, knew that he had encountered such a man. The Conway County machine was fighting for its life, too.
Morrilton witnessed one of the most unusual performances in the annals of Arkansas justice March 19, 1963. Wiley W. Bean, the circuit judge for Conway County, summoned Wirges to his courtroom. In the presence of forty or fifty local political figures-virtually everyone in town who had been stung by Wirges’ writing — Judge Bean conducted an inquisition. Wirges asked for his lawyer. The judge turned him down, then began asking questions about articles Wirges had written on politics and court decisions. When he was finished with the questions, he dressed down the publisher and turned him loose. No charges were filed, and Wirges was never told the purpose of the proceeding. Despite repeated efforts, Wirges has never been able to get a transcript of the session.
The first libel suit was filed in August, 1963. Almost at once, a second was filed.
The county clerk, Clyde C. Brewer, asked for $100,000. He said Wirges had damaged him in an editorial column and a news article the previous December. Wirges had raised questions about aspects of two Conway County school elections.
The first trial began in October. Brewer’s attorney contended that Wirges had damaged his client’s reputation by suggesting that Conway County’s absentee ballots had been handled irregularly, because everyone knew that Brewer was the man in charge of the absentee ballots. In questioning before the trial, none of the prospective jurors knew who handled the absentee ballots. Nevertheless, the same jurors agreed with Brewer that he had been libeled. They awarded him $75,000. Of that amount, $50,000 was in compensatory damages — the implication being that Brewer had suffered $50,000 actual loss because of what Wirges had printed. The other $25,000 was labeled punitive damages.
THE second libel trial began less than a week after the first ended. The plaintiff, County Judge Tom Scott, was asking $200,000. Mr. Scott’s title may be misleading; in Arkansas, the county judge is the chief administrative officer of the county government, and he has only a handful of judicial duties, such as settling the fatherhood of illegitimate children. One county judge has developed a famous system of determining paternity by comparing the ears of the accused with those of the offspring.
Judge Scott complained that he had been damaged by a line that appeared in an anonymous Democrat column entitled “The Birdtown Birdie.” The Birdie wrote of an unnamed person whom the columnist chose to call the “King.” The column said the King “shakes your hand with one hand and picks your pocket with the other.”
In the context, it seemed that the Birdie was expressing a political criticism of the way a county official conducted his duties.
Judge Scott’s lawyer, Lieutenant Governor Nathan Gordon — who said at one point during the trial that he was proud to claim Sheriff Hawkins as a close friend —argued that Wirges’ newspaper had called Judge Scott a pickpocket and a thief.
The astonished Wirges replied that the column had criticized official conduct, not personal. But mainly, Wirges said, the line in question did not refer to Scott. It referred to Sheriff Hawkins.
Wirges produced a long series of “Birdtown Birdie” columns in which the writer consistently had given the pet name the “King” to Sheriff Hawkins. When Judge Scott had been mentioned at all, he had been given another derisive title, “His Majesty.”
Wirges was hollering into the wind. The jury was so impressed with Lieutenant Governor Gordon’s argument that it gave Judge Scott all he asked-the full $200,000. Half was for actual damages, half punitive.
When Wirges routinely asked for a new trial a few days later, he produced in evidence a tidbit that he had turned up after the trial. One of the three jury commissioners appointed by Judge Bean to select jurors for that term of court was a defendant in a $6500 lawsuit that was to be tried during that same term of court by jurors he had helped select. Five persons testified that the jury commissioner had told them that he had agreed to serve on the jury commission merely to approve a jury panel list already selected by others, and that he had agreed to do that because he had been promised help with his own lawsuit. The commissioner admitted talking to the five persons but denied making any deal.
Deal or not, Wirges complained, he had found himself faced with these coincidences in his second trial:
1. The jury foreman was a partner in a resort business in another county with Lieutenant Governor Gordon and his brother, Ed Gordon, both of whom were serving as attorneys for judge Scott in the Wirges libel suit.
2. Another juror was the employer of one of the three jury commissioners.
3. This same juror was the director of the Morrilton Housing Authority, which was represented in legal matters by the Morrilton city attorney, Felver Rowell, Jr., who in turn was Judge Scott’s third attorney in the Wirges libel suit.
4. A third juror, unidentified, had made the statement after the trial that the $200,000 judgment had been fixed not with the idea that it reflected the actual damages to the plaintiff or that it would be paid but rather because “all they wanted to do was to close the paper.”
So the jury was a bad break — what about the judge? Wirges had asked Judge Bean to disqualify himself at the beginning of the Brewer trial because of his inquisition in March. Bean refused. However, on the opening day of the Scott trial he suddenly announced that he was turning the bench over to a colleague from another town. He was not disqualifying himself, he said, but was stepping down because he was tired.
Judge Bean returned to the bench when he was rested, which happened to be immediately after the Wirges trial, and his first act was to summon Wirges to court again. All through the second trial Wirges had refused to identify the author of the “Birdtown Birdie” column. Judge Bean now directed Wirges to name the author. Wirges refused. Judge Bean sentenced him to ten days in jail for contempt of court.
A few days after the second trial, an Arkansas Gazette editorial guessed at what was bound to come. It said,
We are not passing on the merits of these cases. We are not saying whether these two county officials were or were not entitled to judgments. We are saying with solemn earnestness that the law and the courts should not extinguish and exterminate a newspaper for publishing words that have offended county politicians — or anybody else.
The Gazette spoke with more than a little authority. It had paid thousands of dollars in libel judgments and settlements a short time earlier when the Gazette was a symbol of opposition to the prevailing sentiment in a racial crisis.
Brewer and Scott got a court order at 11 a.m., November 26, to sell the Democrat to satisfy their judgments. An hour earlier, unknown to them, one of Wirges’ creditors, Transportation Properties Incorporated of Little Rock, had filed suit for possession of the paper to satisfy its lien. Sheriff Hawkins dutifully served the creditor’s claim and turned the Democrat over to the new faceless owner. Wirges’ enemies were denied the lagniappe of their triumph, but it did not matter. The new owner of the paper, although friendly to Wirges, could not allow him to continue to operate it. His crusade was over.
SINCE then, Wirges has spent his time writing a book and telling his story to civic clubs. The Wirgeses are subsisting on Mrs. Wirges’ earnings from various jobs of writing and editing, while the head of the family fretfully watches the wheels of justice. His ten-day jail sentence and the $75,000 libel judgment are on appeal to the state Supreme Court. He still is waiting for a ruling on his motion for a new trial in the Scott case.
Wirges’ efforts have not gone unheeded. He won the Elijah Parish Lovejoy award for courage in journalism in 1963. The Conway County electoral process has aroused a statewide debate in Arkansas. Winthrop Rockefeller is running for governor against Mr. Faubus this year and is making Conway County an issue in his campaign. Some Arkansans undoubtedly view this reform campaign as carpetbaggery, just as some non-Arkansans may, in the same spirit, view the entire Conway County spectacle as un-American and out of harmony with the national morality. One view is probably as perceptive as the other.