Former Arkansas State Senate Chief of Staff Bill “Scoop” Lancaster has a new book out full of inside stories regarding his time in state politics. It is titled “Inside the Arkansas Legislature.” Anecdotes include memories of a young Bill Clinton as governor and president, as well as a young senator named Mike Beebe.
There are scores of other stories covering a host of additional colorful characters from the pre-term limits era of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock caught up with Lancaster for the “scoop” on why he wrote this book and what readers can expect.
TB&P: What possessed you to write this book and how long did it take you to write?
Bill “Scoop” Lancaster: I wrote the book because I had encouragement from friends and colleagues. They insisted the story of term limits and the way the legislature operated prior to term limits needed to be recorded because our state legislature changed dramatically and the shift of power from the legislative branch to the executive branch changed forever when the term limits amendment passed.
And I was placed in a unique position inside the legislature to witness how the political system actually worked, how the personalities shaped the agenda, how men and women of great power and influence controlled the agenda.
Some were ruthless, some were caring and thoughtful, some were colorful and unpredictable and some broke the law. Bill Clinton was the new, young governor, and times were really changing in our state – even the newspaper war was having an impact as the Democrat moved up and the Gazette tried to hang on. I worked on the book for years, saving notes and photos. Some of my old notes dated back to the old floppy computer disks and I was very happy to finally throw a bunch of the notes and things away once the book was finished. And my background from newspaper days gave me a lot of insight into people and events that might have escaped an untrained eye.
TB&P: Confess. Did you leave a few stories out for purposes of, well, you know, they just needed to be left out to protect the guilty?
Lancaster: Did I leave a few stories out? A few, but not many. I tried to be as thorough as possible. The book starts with a bang with former state Representative Nap Murphy on stage at a huge national event in Little Rock and ends with Billy Bob Thornton in my office and me sitting on the couch with Andy Griffith. I talk about some of the torment I experienced in standing my ground and I discuss what I saw as fundamental differences between House and Senate members. I present stories from lobbyists who dealt with overbearing and greedy legislators and offer some humorous insights into how some legislators would do anything for free food or small gifts. I also touch briefly on the controversial issue of suspected payoffs for votes.
TB&P: You served with a lot of legislators who were legendary in state politics. I know this question will be like asking which child you love the most, but pick one of your favorites that you enjoyed writing about just because the material was so rich? Maybe you could have written a whole book on them.
Lancaster: I did pick some favorites. I name about 20 favorite legislators near the end of the book and why I liked them and why I admired their service. I think some will be surprised that they are on my favorites list.
I had a call from one the other day – he actually broke down and cried when we talked. He lives out of state now and spends his days in a wheelchair but he thanked me for writing the book. It gave me the chills to hear from him.
And I talk about some of my friends who have passed away – Bill Gwatney and Jon Fitch to name two. What Bill Gwatney’s senseless murder did to me personally and all of the Mike Beebe Worm Club. And oh yes, Beebe’s group, which Nick Wilson called the “Young Golfers,” well I write about why they were called the Worm Club and I think readers will get a kick out of that story.
TB&P: Would you share a short passage from the book with our readers?
Lancaster: One short story that you might want to use – David Pryor loves it, we talk occasionally – and he said this had to be in the book.
I tell the story of when newly-elected President Clinton dropped by the Senate to tell some old buddies goodbye. I got a call that he wanted to come by for a brief visit. This was a few days after he had been elected in ’92.
A few senators gathered outside my office (there is a photo of this in the book). Clinton strolls in, followed by Secret Service (SS) of course. We are chatting and sharing old stories when one of the SS agents leans into him and whispers that he has a phone call and he points to my office a few feet away.
Clinton says, “Ok, just a minute.”
The SS guy says, “Well, sir it needs to be now.”
Clinton excuses himself and walks a few feet to go into my office. He returns a short time later. I say, “Is everything all right?”
He says, “You wanna know who that was?” I say, “yeah” and he says, “That was Gorbachev, calling to congratulate me.”
Another favorite story and it’s not controversial at all is about Yarnell’s ice cream and I think it points to how far-ranging my job could be. I had seen an article in the morning newspaper. David Pryor was still the U.S. Senator, but nearing the end of his term. He was holding hearings in Little Rock into high costs of health care for the elderly.
An older woman testified that costs were so high that she could no longer afford to buy ice cream for her terminally-ill husband. I read this and agonized over it. I phoned Mike Beebe and asked him to drop by my office that afternoon – he was scheduled to be at the Capitol for a meeting. He came by and asked what was on my mind. I mentioned the story in the newspaper and he asked, “What do you want me to do?”
I asked him about his close ties to the Yarnell family and he said he would help. The next day I met with the company officials and I arranged for $500 worth of ice cream coupons to be mailed to the woman who had testified about her ailing husband. I say in the book, “It was only $500, but I left the office that day feeling like a million dollars.”
I also write about how I had to stand my ground with my bosses and how this cost me some support over time. But I always tried to represent the Senate and uphold the rules and requirements set forth by the membership. I write a lot about these conflicts.
TB&P: What’s the easiest way for someone to buy a copy of the book?
Lancaster: The book is for sale at Wordsworth Book Store in Little Rock; and nationally on Barnes and Noble website; Amazon web site; and Xlibris web site.
I am starting a speaking tour around the state and will appear before the Northwest Arkansas Political Animals group August 7 at noon at Mermaids Restaurant. On August 15 at 1 pm, I will be at Wordsworth in Little Rock for a book signing. And October 27, I will be at Political Animals Group at the Governor’s Mansion.