Opinion » Viewpoint

Whistle-Blower’s Crime

The current inquiry into possible Trump campaign misdeeds recalls a long-gone bit of personal history.



If you go on long enough, you will find that some of your most distinguishing moments become more difficult to brag about. To put it simply, they date you. 

To name a few of my own: I not only knew one of the icons of our time, Elvis Presley, I lived next door to him. As Peter Guralnick documents in Last Train to Memphis, the first volume of his definitive biography, Elvis and his parents, upwardly mobile at last, moved into the first house they'd ever occupied, a modest bungalow on Lamar, after he began his rise as a Sun recording artist. I was a kid growing up in the house next door, and all the Presleys were in and out of our house to use our telephone.

Jackson Baker
  • Jackson Baker

Not long before that, I had been on the field at Yankee Stadium hobnobbing with two other icons, Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle, as one of the paperboy winners of a circulation sales contest conducted by the old afternoon daily, the Memphis Press-Scimitar. As Otis Sanford notes in his terrific new history, From Boss Crump to King Willie, I hawked street copies — "extras" in the parlance of the time — when E.H. Crump, the city's legendary political boss, died. I interviewed the Beatles when they came to Memphis on their last performance tour in 1966.

And, most memorably and proudest of all, I did two stretches in jail in Little Rock, Arkansas, back in 1967. 

Several circumstances have brought this last fact to mind of late. The wonderfully gracious Ruth Dunning, who interviews me periodically for Germantown Municipal Television, asked me about it in our latest conversation. And Donald Trump came to Nashville last week. And FBI Director James Comey testified before a House of Representatives committee on intelligence this week about possible hanky-panky of the president's election campaign involving collusion with the Russian government.

And how do those last several statements belong together? Easily.

In 1967, I was a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette, which not long before had won a Pulitzer for its faithful and stout coverage of the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School. The paper took things like truth and accuracy seriously, and so did I. 

So when two members of the Arkansas legislature told me they had been offered big-money bribes ($1,000 back then, the equivalent of much more today) to vote for a legalized-gambling bill, I hastened to write about it. Stop the presses. Page-One. Simultaneously, a reporter for the Pine Bluff Commercial, who'd been tipped by one of my two sources, wrote a similar story.

In no time at all, a grand jury investigation was instituted, and Michael Smith, the Pine Bluff reporter, and I were called to testify. One of my sources, a crankily honest conservative state representative from Little Rock named Gayle Windsor, had gone on the record, and I'd used his name both in my story and in my testimony. The other, a Pine Bluff representative who'd been a source for both me and Smith, had given his information on condition of anonymity, and both Smith and I honored our pledge to him and kept his name out of our testimony.

The grand jury members seemed to appreciate our scruples. The presiding judge, William Kirby, didn't. He found us guilty of contempt of court and issued an order that was simple and in the vernacular: "Take their asses to jail!" Two days later, after we shared a cell with a celebrated local cop killer, our Pine Bluff source reluctantly came public and identified himself, and we were released. 

But not for long. Judge Kirby, still irked, found some technical reason to put us back in jail for another couple of days before summoning us before him again to be formally "purged" of our contempt.

What brought all this to mind again most vividly was the response this week of several Republican Intelligence Committee members, presumably motivated by protective instincts toward party colleague Trump, whose main complaint seemed to be not the Trump campaign's possible misdeeds but leaks to the media about them.

It's too early to tell what will happen in the current case, but it's a matter of record what happened in Arkansas in 1967. For whatever reason, despite direct and detailed testimony on the record from the aforementioned state representatives, no one was ever prosecuted for the brazen attempt to bribe members of the Arkansas legislature.

I take some consolation from an outraged statement made at the time by the then governor of Arkansas, Winthrop Rockefeller: "The only people jailed for this crime so far are the reporters who uncovered it!"

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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