February/March 2016 Issue
For more than 25 years, former journalist
Bill “Scoop” Lancaster spent his days with the
Arkansas General Assembly, which he
chronicles in a book published last year.
Photography by Brandon Markin
These days, anyone looking for Bill “Scoop” Lancaster will likely find him either on the golf course or bass fishing at his cabin on the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Such leisure is a far cry from how he spent his days at the Capitol during a 27-year career with the Arkansas Legislature.
A Sheridan native, Lancaster’s career in state government began in 1977 with a stint at the Arkansas House of Representatives. In 1985, he became the state Senate’s first chief of staff. He worked long hours, stayed up-to-date on the latest news and legislation, and always anticipated — and headed off — any potential problems that legislators might encounter. It was his diligence and ability to stay one step ahead that earned him the nickname, “Scoop,” given to him by late Rep. W.F. “Bill” Foster.
“Looking back on it, I don’t honestly see how I did it,” he said. “I don’t see how I had the energy to do it. While it was fun, once you get out of the rhythm, you look back on it, think, ‘How in the world do people do this?’”
For years, people suggested that Lancaster write a book about the experience. In June 2015, he published Inside the Arkansas Legislature, full of anecdotes from when he first set foot in the state Capitol to his retirement in 2004.
“I decided now was the time because I had the time to do it,” Lancaster said. “I had saved bits and pieces over the years. I felt like it was a good time to get it out of my system.”
He had previously published two novels, and before his career with the Legislature, he was a newspaper reporter and editor for 10 years. After leaving the Senate, he served as director of the Grant County Museum in Sheridan until 2007. He still serves on the Arkansas State Claims Commission, as a former Gov. Mike Beebe appointee.
AMP caught up with Lancaster in mid November 2015 to discuss his book, how term limits changed Arkansas’ legislative landscape, and why the state Legislature wants him back.
AMP: After all of these years, how did you remember the stories for your book?
Lancaster: I kept what I call “napkin notes.” When I’d leave a lunch or whatever, I’d grab napkins and write notes. I kept tons of photographs and notes. It even went back to the floppy disk stage, where I had saved stuff on floppy disks and had to find a way to pull some of that out. It was a laborious task of getting it all done because it covered such a long period of time. It covered a quarter of a century.
AMP: What was the editing process like? How did you decide what to include?
Lancaster: I’ve written two other books, and I’ve spent my time in my career writing. Unlike [novelist John] Grisham and other people who do an outline, I just didn’t do that. I just felt like, “I’ve got to start telling my story.” I started my story essentially when I went to work [at the state Legislature] and just let it unfold over time. I had all these notes and things I’d saved, and edited some of it out. In the end, I was satisfied with what I was able to do. It followed a kind of a timeline.
AMP: Were there some really scandalous stories that you couldn’t include?
Lancaster: I don’t know if they’re scandalous; they’re very personal. I was in a position — and, I don’t know why but I talk about that in the book — where I was always able to be very frank with people. I just didn’t have time not to be. When you have 35 political bosses, some of whom don’t like each other, I’d have to go directly to the source of a concern and address it and move on to the next one. I was always very frank. I talk about it in the book. I talk about exploding on some of my bosses at times, but they were men enough to take it. They knew that I cared for them. They didn’t take offense. They knew I was doing it out of concern for them and the Senate itself.
AMP: In the book, you talk a lot about the adoption of term limits for state legislators in 1992 and wrote that “real men” disappeared from state government with term limits. Explain.
Lancaster: I talk about the characters disappearing. I think everything today — and we’re seeing that in the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign — is about political correctness. I heard a 45-minute discussion in a business meeting I was in about whether or not to decide on the number of breakfasts to have in a session. Well, if that had happened when we were there, that was a one-cigarette discussion. I think the characters slowly went away in politics.
Donald Trump is a character. He’s a sideshow; he’s almost a cartoon character. He’s a TV character. That’s why we have to cover Donald Trump, because you don’t know what he’s going to do. We had a bunch of people like that [in the Arkansas Legislature]. We didn’t know what some of them were going to do. I’m sure there are real men there now. Jonathan Dismang [R-Beebe], the Senate pro tem, is a friend of mine, a great young leader. I like Jeremy Hutchinson [R-Benton] in the Senate, a good young leader. Bruce Maloch [D-Magnolia] is a good senator. So, I know some there now. There’s some real talent in the Legislature now. I just don’t know if they have time to develop into understanding what all the problems are in Arkansas.
AMP: Do you see a correlation between term limits and legislators’ pressure to perform — for example, in the large number of bills filed in recent years?
Lancaster: I think it’s because many times they don’t understand the history of the legislation. When you had someone who had been there for 25 or 30 years, and somebody filed a bill, a legislator could come up and say, “Hey, we tried that in 1968 and the court ruled it unconstitutional.” That happened.
In fact, in the book, I talk about an upstart senator in 2001, who went to one of our bill drafters, a lawyer who had been there for 40-something years, and said he wanted to introduce a bill. This fine attorney, a dedicated guy, said, “Senator, we can’t do that. It’s been tried three times.” [The senator] said, “You’re going to do it because I want to do it.” [The bill drafter] packed up his suitcase and retired because this guy wasn’t going to listen to him. There may be some lack [of understanding] of the history of the state and what’s been tried before.
When you’re there for a limited time, you’ve got to make a splash in the little pond for people to try to get to know you — beat your chest a little more, maybe. Before, you settled in. Many times, you came out of law school, and you ran and you settled in. People who had been there 25-30 years, they may give you a good assignment on a committee and they may not. You worked your way up. Now, you don’t have time to do that.
AMP: If term limits hadn’t been put in place, how would the state’s political landscape look today?
Lancaster: I think you’d probably have a viable Democratic Party. Term limits helped make our state more Republican because, in an overnight swift move, you abolished hundreds of years of Democratic loyalty. In the counties of Arkansas, we had legislators who had served 25, 28, 42 years, and they were Democrats. When they went back home, all the political makeup of that county catered to them. That’s where it all started. So, you abolished all of that. All of a sudden, it’s a level playing field. The young Republican lawyer has just as much chance of winning the race as the old Democratic lawyer who had been there 40 years.
Another change in Arkansas is the demise of the Arkansas Gazette [in 1991]. The Arkansas Gazette for a long, long time set the agenda for news in Arkansas. It had a liberal slant to it, and you had a steady water drip every day of ideas and what was really important in life. Democratic people, Democratic parties in the state would read those editorials. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, with a Republican slant, changed all of that. You had a steady drumbeat of what they perceived to be important and candidates that they backed. So, it was kind of a coming together of a storm, as it were, of things that happened.
AMP: In the book, you mention respecting the “institutions” of House and Senate. Do you think that’s lacking today?
Lancaster: All I can say about that is what I hear from a few [people]. From what I hear, there’s no brotherhood among the members, even people within the parties don’t get along sometimes. I don’t think people pull together out there like they used to. That’s just from what I hear. That’s understandable. When you spend 25 or 30 years with somebody, you know their family. You’re there when their babies are born. Now, these members hardly know each other. I’m told that some of them won’t even have lunch with the others. I don’t know the reason for that. You’d have to ask them. That’s just what I’ve been told.
AMP: What do you think it would be like if you had your old job back now under the current political climate?
Lancaster: I’d be pulling my hair out. I don’t say this out of ego, but I hope they have somebody who’ll say things to them like I did and [former parliamentarian] Tim Massanelli in the House did. I’ve seen Tim almost come to blows with members because they wouldn’t listen. I’ve had some tough moments with members. I felt so driven to make it a better place, and I knew what they were doing wasn’t a good thing for them and wasn’t a good thing for the Senate. I’m told now they don’t have that. That’s why I was asked to come back a few months ago. They want somebody to tell them how it used to be and what they ought to do differently.
AMP: They asked you to come back recently? What did you say?
Lancaster: They did. I was asked in August  if I would consider coming back, and I said, “Not if you paid me $1 million a day.” It’s different. I would probably be as lost as a goose. They’d probably wonder, “Who is this guy to tell us what to do?” There’s no compelling historical reason for them to listen up. They have to do what they’ve got to do in a short period of time. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
AMP: Do you think the good ol’ boy network still exists in state politics?
Lancaster: No. You had enormous power and influence in the hands of a few legislators. People say, “Well, that’s a bad thing.” It depends what you do with [the power]. Do you want to go to a car salesman that’s been there a while and can tell you everything good or bad about a car or truck? Or, do you want a new guy who doesn’t know anything? It’s just how you look at it. Reporters start out young and then they become editors and they know a lot more. The good ol’ boy [network], yes, it existed when I was there.
AMP: Do you think Gov. Asa Hutchinson has tried to get rid of that a little bit?
Lancaster: No, I don’t think he’d purposefully do that. I don’t know that much about his administration. I know Asa Hutchinson. I like him. I think he’s made a real effort to make sure young Republicans are appointed to things. That’s a good thing — to keep building up your party. I think he’s very wise to do that. I think he’s partisan, but that’s understandable.
AMP: Who do you miss most that you worked with in your time with either the House or Senate?
Lancaster: I miss Sen. Jon Fitch who passed away. John and I were just like brothers. I told the story about being a page in the ninth grade [in the book]. He was a page then too. He’s a big old cattle farmer from Hindsville and passed away. It broke my heart. [Former state senator and Democratic Party of Arkansas chair] Bill Gwatney, who was shot down by an extremist. I told [Little Rock attorney] Richard Mays, who is a friend of mine, that the murder changed who I am. When you’re a privileged white guy, you never expect one of your buddies to be murdered. He was shot down and slain. It shakes you to the core. I miss Sen. Jim Hill, who died recently. I got him a copy of the book transcript, and he got to read it before he passed away.
I guess the ones I miss most are the ones who are gone. I miss working with Mike Beebe and Sen. Steve Bell from Batesville. I still play golf with them. I miss the working part, but I still have them as friends.
I was so privileged that I could hammer away at them and fuss at them, and they could fuss at me. We could walk out to the car and still be friends. I knew I was doing my job. It was just a special place for a long time for me.
AMP: When you read the paper in the morning, do you think, “Thank god, I’m not there anymore?”
Lancaster: The first session I wasn’t there, I did more then than I do now. Now, I can just take it or leave it. I used be a sports editor, and used to agonize over the Razorbacks, but now, I can just take it or leave it. … I don’t get upset over what they do at the capital, nor in Washington, D.C. In the final analysis, it’s really not going to impact your life. What they do will impact certain industries to a point, school districts, prisons, highways, those sorts of things. Joe Blow who gets up and goes to work that day, it’s really not going to impact him.
AMP: Do you ever have the opposite reaction? Do you ever feel nostalgic for the old days at the capitol?
Lancaster: I want to go, “We wouldn’t do it that way.” Beebe was a very decisive governor. I was a very decisive person. It wouldn’t take me long to settle some of the issues up there. The rather mundane things seem to take a lot of time now. Before, they had seen all of that. When you’re plowing new ground, you have to take more time. I don’t want to come across as saying it was better then that it was now because that’s unfair.
AMP: In the book, you write that the late Sen. Jodie Mahony was one of your favorites. Why?
Lancaster: That family is so unlike a lot of well-to-do families. They have devoted their life to public service and they didn’t have to. Jodie had a ragged old suit. His shoes were scuffed. The ladies in the House would cut his hair. He was a bit of a maverick. He was a well-to-do lawyer, but he thrived on legislative work. He lived it 24 hours a day. He was brilliant, and he didn’t have to do any of that. He could have played golf at the fanciest country club every day and had a chauffeur drive him out there and back. But, he didn’t do that. He drove a smokin’ old car to the capital and put hours and hours of work into his job. That’s what I liked about him.
AMP: At the end of the book, you include a quote from Sen. Max Howell about “gray areas.” Do you think legislators spend enough time considering the gray areas?
Lancaster: I hope they do. From what I read in the paper, some are unbending; some want to pound their chest and say, “My way or the highway,” and get in the newspaper or on TV. [He gets] 30 seconds on TV, and he’s a hero back home. I don’t see where that gets you anywhere. It may get you re-elected. I don’t think that’s a great thing for the taxpayer. Bill Gwatney called that “peacocking.” I think that’s a great expression. He’d say, “He’s just a peacock. A peacock wants to be noticed. They’ll stand out at the zoo and spread their feathers out so everyone can see them. But, they don’t really do anything except walk around.” I always liked that expression.
AMP: What made you realize it was time to retire in 2004?
Lancaster: In 2001, the first year [Mike] Beebe was attorney general, he was leaving the Senate. I was going to the AG’s office with Mike. The next day, Sen. [Jim] Hill came in, and he was going to be the pro tem, maybe. He asked if I was playing golf that day. On the fifth hole at Chenal Country Club, he stopped the cart and said I’m not going to do the pro tem thing if you’re leaving. I said, “I’m leaving. I’m a Beebe guy, and he’s going to be governor one day. I want to be there to help him.” [Hill] said “I talked to Mike, and he said you could stay with me for two years.” I decided to stay and I’m glad I did. I got to know Jim Hill so well.
In 2003, we were about to start a new session, and my brother, Jim, came to me. He was president of the foundation of the [Grant County Museum]. He said the director was leaving, and we have a mess on our hands out there.
I got in a bit of a squabble with one of the senators from Northwest Arkansas who held a prayer meeting on the Senate floor. I made time to visit with the senator about it, and he took offense. He said he could campaign on Senate floor if he wanted to. I said, “We’ll have to take it up with the efficiency committee, because you’ve violated the rules of the Senate.” So I looked around the room and most of my friends were gone. It was like working at the funeral home. I said “I can go home and continue my state retirement with the county museum,” and I did. I loved it.
I got to go home and work with people I’d grown up with. I stayed there four years, and I went through a battle of cancer and survived that. I was so happy that I did that. I started a column in the newspaper that led to my first book and then my second book. So I really had never had the time to look back on any of it. I stayed busy.