After Some On-the-Job Training with Wife Betty, Jim Guy Tucker Heads Up the Conference on Families
01/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
When the Carter administration asked Jim Guy Tucker to head its White House Conference on Families last spring, Tucker answered, "I don't have a dog or a station wagon. I am the wrong guy." He did not realize that as a longtime bachelor who four years ago married a divorced woman with two children, his own life-style is as typical as any these days.
The time-honored American family of working father, housewife mother and two children now comprises less than seven percent of all American households. But if the Tuckers are not otherwise the happily-ever-after family of American tradition, they have at least acquired a dog (a Labrador retriever) since Jim Guy accepted the conference chairmanship in April.
The job is part-time, paying $192 a day, but the ambitious former Arkansas congressman, 36, has a financial cushion from a flourishing Little Rock law practice. The conference is pyramiding, from 50 state forums to seven regional and three national conferences this summer. Tucker tries to chair all major meetings; his wife, Betty, 36, often bleary-eyed from her double life as a law student and mother, catches up with him when she can. At the hearings they listen to professionals, private citizens and occasional fanatics talk about abortion, battered wives, child-free couples, teenage marriage, neglect of the elderly, homosexuality, working couples and dozens of other touchy subjects. "Economics is a very serious problem, and people are frustrated with government," Jim Guy says, but what really "raises a rage" is the feeling that the media, especially TV, glamorize a promiscuous, irreverent life-style counter to so many parents' teaching. In South Dakota one woman "nearly had tears in her eyes," Jim Guy says, describing a sex education program that told teenagers how to use condoms.
The testimony is not always well-informed or even well-mannered. "I never thought I was a patient man, but I've learned," says Tucker, who always sums up the discussion for Hispanic groups in his college Spanish.
The conference has always been controversial. It is an outgrowth of President Carter's campaign promise to support "family life" (after managing to implicate the Republicans in its neglect). This spring Carter showed new interest in the project. Tucker came in after two earlier officials had resigned—Chairman Wilbur Cohen because of illness, Director Patsy Fleming, a divorcee, when HEW Secretary Califano attempted to appoint a co-director after criticism from Catholic groups. Some HEW staff members scoffed at the project as a waste of time and money, but Tucker accepted the job as a visible way station between elected offices. Hectic as it's been, he says, "This year has been the first private life we've had since we were married."
That kind of privacy is rare for Betty too. Daughter of a Brookhaven, Miss, lawyer, she eloped at 15 with Lance Al-worth, 17, who went on to become a Hall of Fame wide receiver in pro football after starring at the University of Arkansas. To be with him, Betty passed a special entrance exam and went from high school freshman to college freshman at Arkansas.
At 18, a junior, she became the mother of Lance Jr. Alworth was with the San Diego Chargers when daughter Kelley was born in 1963. Betty recal's, "It was not traumatic at the time. I didn't think about it. But looking back, I suspect it was a very disoriented life." The marriage eventually soured. After 10 years she packed her children back to Little Rock, divorced Alworth, finished college and began teaching. "It was a very hard divorce," she says. "Being so young, I didn't know anyone who had gone through it." Her contemporaries—at 25—were just getting married.
Tucker is from an old Southern family dating to the Revolution. His father was state auditor and his mother had a cosmetics franchise, "but we were never rich," Jim Guy recalls. After success in sports (boxing, track) and academics in Arkansas public schools, he landed at Harvard in 1961, "watching all those girls in miniskirts riding bicycles with their black stockings. It was nothing like Little Rock." He worked on Ted Kennedy's first senatorial campaign, then after graduation joined the Marines but was disqualified from combat because of ulcerated colitis. Following his discharge Tucker made it to Vietnam as a free-lance reporter for ABC News, the Saigon Post and some Arkansas papers. (His stories were collected in a book, Arkansas Man at War.) After law school at Arkansas, he was elected state prosecutor and eventually gained an activist, pro-consumer reputation.
In 1971 he called Betty Allen Alworth for a date, having admired "that smashing woman with the blue eyes" he saw with acquaintances at a restaurant. Their four-year courtship was fraught with many of the concerns Tucker hears at conference sessions. Betty's children were growing, she had a job she liked and was apprehensive about becoming a mother again, "but I knew I would never marry Jim Guy and not have children." He was also intent on a political career. While they were dating, he was elected attorney general and dubbed Arkansas' most eligible bachelor. "I didn't plan to get married until I was 35," he says, "but I was afraid of losing Betty." They married in November 1975; a daughter, Anna, was born a year later.
When Rep. Wilbur Mills resigned in 1976 as a result of the Fanne Foxe scandal, Tucker easily won the election to replace him. Two years later he tried for the Senate seat vacated by John McClellan's death, but lost in a primary runoff.
The Tuckers went back to Little Rock where Jim Guy opened a law firm and Betty started law school. They're redoing a downtown Victorian home on their own, with Betty operating the chain saw. Lance Jr., 18, is at Harvard (like his stepfather), where he plays football (like his father). Kelley, 16, is at Central High in Little Rock. Says Betty: "Jim Guy did a very good job of always being available to my children and yet not forcing himself on them." Jim calls Lance Jr. "my son."
One conference lawyer says admiringly of Tucker, "Because the issues are so divisive and polarizing, anyone with a political future would really have to be committed to families to carry this off." Tucker admits he's toyed with the idea of running for governor, and some Arkansans see Sen. Dale Bumpers as running mate with Ted Kennedy, if he is nominated, and Tucker in Bumper's Senate seat. Whatever his political future, Jim Guy has a notion that fits into America's growing trend toward two-income families. "Who knows where we'll be 30 years from now?" he grins. "Maybe I'll have the back patio finished. And the musty old law firm of Tucker and Tucker doesn't sound half bad."