Winthrop Rockefeller and Executions

By Martin Kirby

Vol. 11, No. 2, 1989, pp. 10-11

In the continuing debate over the death penalty, it is fitting to invoke the name of Winthrop Rockefeller, who was Governor of Arkansas, my home state, from 1967 to 1971. He managed to overcome the awful moral burden of immense wealth and lesser burdens of personal weaknesses to become, as Governor, a genuine moral leader, whose record looks better and better as the years go by. His career took


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place in a small state, and he has been dead a long time now, but his position on the death penalty presented the rare spectacle of a public of official actually living up to the Golden Rule, against opposition.

No one was executed in Arkansas while Rockefeller was Governor, and before he left office he commuted all thirteen existing death sentences. He also appointed a committee to review each case and recommend the apparent best alternative to a death sentence.

Rockefeller then issued a statement, saying: "What earthly mortal has the omnipotence to say who among us shall live and who shall die? I do not. Moreover, in that the law grants me the authority to set aside the death penalty, I cannot and will not turn my back on lifelong Christian teachings and beliefs merely to let history run out its course on a fallible and failing theory of punitive justice...failing to take this action while it is within my power, I could not live with myself." (Quoted in The Arkansas Rockefeller by John L. Ward, LSU Press, 1978.)

This position seems self-evidently clean, pure and worthy of emulation, but in fact scarcely any public issue brings out the craven and trollish in both politicians and voters like the death penalty issue. Many politicians seem to perceive the voters uniformly as lusting after the blood of criminals like sharks in a feeding frenzy and to think, therefore, that the way to gain office and stay there is to throw them as many victims as possible. Too often these politicians are right. The situation reminds me of that which formerly existed in the South when politicians used to compete in the force and cleverness of their efforts to persecute black people. Winthrop Rockefeller was not willing to cater either to Southern racism or to the national predilection for capital punishment.

He died in 1973, not long after losing his third-term election, which he might have won if he had been willing to wreak some official violence, and he had many opportunities to do so. But his stand on the death penalty was consistent with his attitude toward violence in general. He could have permitted executions, and most of the voters would have cheered. He could have sent the State Police to shoot up the prisons on several provocatory occasions, and most voters would have applauded. He could have dealt violently with any number of public demonstrations, and a significant percentage of voters would have fawned on him. But he did none of these things.

Still, there was an irony inherent in Rockefeller's career. In volatile times, he was successful at keeping the lid on violence of all kinds in Arkansas, and was therefore generally perceived not as heroic, but as soft. Why? Consider this snatch of song: "Texas John Slaughter / Made 'em do what they oughter. / 'Cause if they didn't, they died."

This prescription was part of the theme song of a Walt Disney television series which I watched as a teen-ager. I've never been able to forget it. It is a near-perfect expression of the attitude that efforts at compassionate reform must overcome--the immense popular appeal of whatever seems practical, simple and tough. The last factor is often decisive. No compassionate reform is "tough" in the popular sense, which is a major reason why governors as well-intentioned as Winthrop Rockefeller are as rare as Bachman's warblers.

Rockefeller was tough enough to use his office to do good; his stand on the death penalty was only one part of an administration that was humanitarian and ethical to a degree unprecedented in the history of Arkansas, and not exactly common elsewhere.

Someday, the death penalty not only will be abolished but generally regarded as something barbaric that people used to do, like worshipping oak trees and segregating races. In that future, I suspect that the moral heroism which was Winthrop Rockefeller's will be recognized only as normal human decency, a mild confusion which I think would have pleased him.

Martin Kirby was a newspaper reporter in Arkansas during the last years of Winthrop Rockefeller's governorship. He now lives in North Augusta, South Carolina.