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Ex-governor, senator Bumpers dead at 90

Statesman remembered for oratory, wit by Bill Bowden | January 3, 2016 at 3:53 a.m. | Updated January 3, 2016 at 3:53 a.m.
Dale Bumpers visits with then-Gov. Mike Beebe at the Governor’s Mansion on Jan. 7, 2011, before an event for the release of a book about the mansion.

Dale Leon Bumpers, who rose from country lawyer to Arkansas governor and then served in the U.S. Senate for 24 years, died Friday night at his Little Rock home. He was 90.

Photo by Michael Woods
Dale Bumpers (right), shown in April 2011, rose from humble beginnings in Charleston to become a gentle master of statesmanship.
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Dale Bumpers is shown in December 1974, near the end of his second term as governor and before his start in the U.S. Senate.
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Dale Bumpers announces his intention not to seek re-election to the Senate on June 14, 1997, as his wife, Betty, tries to keep her composure.
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Dale Bumpers stands with Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller on Nov. 1, 1970. Bumpers succeeded Rockefeller in January 1971 after winning 60 percent of the general election votes.
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Dale Bumpers (left) and David Pryor (right), both Democratic U.S. senators in January 1984, talk with Gov. Bill Clinton at an event in Arkansas.
Photo by AP file photo
Two months after his retirement from the Senate, Dale Bumpers delivers closing arguments on Jan. 21, 1999, on the Senate floor on behalf of President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

He fell on Dec. 12, broke his hip and had surgery the next day, said Brent Bumpers, his son.

His condition was exacerbated by dementia, which began a couple of years ago.

"We've been in mourning for a year," his son said. "After the past three weeks, in particular, this really was a merciful death as so many are when they go this route. ... He had become very physically frail even before the fall."

Brooke Bumpers Low, the former senator's daughter, said he "just couldn't seem to bounce back" after surgery to replace part of his hip.

"At that point, it just takes one big event that can be the tipping point," she said. "Then it's just a downward spiral."

Dale Bumpers had returned home from the hospital on Christmas Eve. Family members and caregivers were with him when he died about 10:30 p.m. on New Year's Day.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Roller Funeral Homes. No date for his service had been set as of late Saturday.

Bumpers, a Democrat from Charleston in Franklin County, was Arkansas governor from 1971-75 and a U.S. senator from 1975-99.

He was a fiscally conservative, socially liberal senator known for his oratory skills and sharp wit. He emerged from retirement in 1999 to give one of his most famous speeches -- defending President Bill Clinton during Clinton's impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate.

As governor, Bumpers reorganized state government into a Cabinet system and fought to raise taxes, bringing in tens of millions of dollars in new revenue.

During his political career, Bumpers defeated some of the giants in Arkansas politics -- Orval Faubus and Winthrop Rockefeller for governor in 1970, and J. William Fulbright in 1974 for the U.S. Senate seat that Fulbright had held for 30 years.

After that initial Senate win, Bumpers defeated anyone who ran against him, including Asa Hutchinson and Mike Huckabee.

Bumpers survived malaria, a stint in the Marine Corps and a plane crash with Clinton.


Bumpers was born Aug. 12, 1925, in Charleston, Ark., the son of the man who ran the town's hardware store and funeral home.

His parents were William Rufus Bumpers -- W.R. for short -- and the former Lattie Jones, a postmistress in the town of Anise.

He grew up in a house that had no electricity or running water.

The family slept outside during the heat of the summer, "and the mosquitoes had a nightly feast," Bumpers wrote in his 2003 autobiography, The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town.

He twice contracted malaria during his childhood.

Before he was born, his older brother Raymond died of dysentery at age 3 after getting into the garden and eating some rotten watermelon.

Bumpers had two other siblings who lived into the 21st century but are now deceased -- a sister, Margaret Ware Kahliff and a brother Carroll Bumpers.

During the Depression, everyone Bumpers knew was poor. "Mother made our underwear from flour sacks," he wrote.

But Bumpers noted that there were people in Charleston who had less than his family did.


Bumpers picked cotton and worked in his father's funeral home, where he said he learned to "use comforting words of solace" when talking to grieving families.

He attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for a summer before leaving in 1943 to join the Marine Corps, where he served from 1943-46.

He was in Hawaii, about to be shipped out to the Pacific Theater, when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and World War II ended.

Returning to the states, he resumed college and got a degree in political science from UA. He played the trumpet in the university marching band.

After graduating, he attended law school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. While there, his parents were killed in a car crash in March of 1949.

Six months after, Bumpers married his high school sweetheart, Betty Lou Flanagan, and they moved back to Evanston so he could finish law school.

Dale and Betty Bumpers returned to Charleston in 1951. Bumpers bought the Charleston Hardware and Furniture store from his father's partner and set up a law practice in the back office. He later bought a small building across the street, where he practiced law until he ran for governor in 1970.

In the 1960s, besides practicing law, Bumpers was an aspiring entrepreneur. He built the only nursing home in town in partnership with the local doctor, and he acquired a 360-acre cattle farm, where he raised registered Angus cattle for about six years. He sold the hardware store and the cattle shortly before campaigning for the governor office.

Bumpers was the only lawyer in Charleston and served as city attorney from 1952-70. He taught Sunday School in the Methodist church, where he also led the choir.

He was legal counsel for the Charleston School Board in 1954 when Charleston became the first town in the former Confederacy to desegregate its schools after the U.S. Supreme Court's desegregation ruling in the Brown v. Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education.

Bumpers always said that was his proudest achievement.

He ran for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1962 and lost. It was a legislative seat that his father had once held.

He swore off elective politics but had a change of heart eight years later.


He was little-known outside of Charleston when he decided to run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1970.

The field of eight was formidable. Former governor Faubus was the presumed front-runner.

At the time, Faubus was a fading, tarnished political giant. He had held the office of governor for a still-record 12 years (1955-67), bowing out undefeated. He led the balloting in the party primary but didn't get enough votes to avoid a runoff.

Many voters feared that a Faubus win would mean a return of cronyism and scandals that had marked the closing years of his administration, as well as intensify the scorn that had been heaped on the state during the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis, which occurred while he was governor.

Those voters were looking for other options. Some liked what they saw in Bumpers. (He would later say that one reason he ran was to try to make sure Faubus didn't return to power.)

Bumpers had Charleston's quiet, simple desegregation in his past, but he said little about it during the governor's race.

What he offered was a smile, charm and wit, friendliness and good manners, oratorical polish, and an outsider image.

He made it into the runoff election, but in the primary he had received 70,000 fewer votes than Faubus had.

Faubus had a history of surviving political attacks and making surprise charges late in campaigns.

But during this campaign, the best Faubus came up against Bumpers was questioning whether Bumpers believed in a literal parting of the Red Sea -- an accusation that was grounded in remarks in a news article from members of Bumpers' Sunday School class about how he made Bible study interesting.

Bumpers said he believed in a literal reading of the Old Testament story, and the accusation dissolved.

Bumpers crushed Faubus in the runoff, getting more than 60 percent of the votes.

In the general election that fall, Bumpers faced a second giant, the incumbent Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, a cattleman and Republican transplant from New York.

Bumpers received 60 percent of the vote in the general election, and his giant-killer reputation was established.


Bumpers served two terms (four years) as governor. In winning his second term, he received 60 percent of the vote in the primary and 75 percent in the general election.

As frustrating as he had been to Faubus and Rockefeller, by saying few definitive things during the campaigns, he was equally frustrating to members of the press corps.

Once, when asked, "Are you wishy-washy?" Bumpers answered with characteristic wit, "Maybe I am. And maybe I'm not."

Bumpers embraced proposals Rockefeller had unsuccessfully pursued.

The Democrat-controlled Legislature worked with him to enact a reorganization of state government, resulting in a simpler Cabinet system. About 60 state agencies were grouped into 13 departments whose directors reported to him.

Another key to his success as governor was passage of a large tax increase. For the first time since the income tax was enacted, Bumpers got the Legislature to raise the basic tax rates, while, at the same time, reducing the tax on the lowest incomes.

Other tax increases were enacted, as well, including a 5-cent increase in the cigarette tax.

The tax changes brought in tens of millions of dollars in new revenue (state general revenue nearly doubled during Bumpers' time as governor), resulting in better funding for schools, allowing the state to establish public kindergarten and provide free textbooks, improving teacher pay, paying for construction of state facilities, and expanding services for the elderly, disabled and mentally handicapped.

It also resulted in a $100 million state surplus.

Bumpers' wife, Betty, led a state effort to immunize children against diseases. Later, she became nationally known for immunization efforts and as the founder of Peace Links, which promoted nuclear disarmament and world peace.


In 1974, Bumpers challenged Fulbright for the U.S. Senate.

Their philosophies were similar, but Fulbright's outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War had alienated some Arkansans, and public opinion surveys showed that his re-election prospects were dim.

Bumpers smiled, charmed and won, again getting more than 60 percent of the vote.

Arkansas voters elected him to three more Senate terms.

As senator, Bumpers' votes suggested a liberal, independent streak that had not been evident when he was governor.

Besides being known for his oratory skills and wit, Bumpers was known for taking stances that other Southern politicians avoided.

He was the only Southerner in the Senate to vote against anti-busing legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina.

Bumpers voted against school prayer legislation and anti-abortion legislation, and for the Panama Canal treaties.

He opposed President Ronald Reagan's tax cuts of 1981 and spoke forcefully against the Strategic Defense Initiative and the MX missile.

Bumpers encountered early hostility from veteran senators resentful of his win over Fulbright, but over time, he emerged as one the Senate's more widely admired members.

He worked to provide funding for agriculture in Arkansas. As a result, in 1995, the agriculture college at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville was renamed the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food & Life Sciences.

He considered running for president in 1984 and 1988 but decided against it. In 1984, he cited personal and family considerations. In 1987, Bumpers cited knee surgery as a reason he wouldn't run.

He told the Arkansas Gazette then that unless a presidential candidate is physically completely able to run, he "can't ask others to put in 14- to 16-hour days."


One of his most memorable speeches in the Senate was the one he delivered as the closing argument on behalf of his friend, Bill Clinton.

The U.S. House of Representatives had impeached President Clinton on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. Impeachment is a formal charge made by the House. Impeachment trials are conducted in the Senate.

Clinton was on trial in the Senate in January 1999 after lying under oath about his sexual relationship with a former White House aide.

Tapping his Senate friendships and using his gift for speaking, Bumpers urged his colleagues to move past the controversy, calling the case a matter not worthy of the august body's attention.

He told his colleagues to "honor the Constitution," which states that the president "shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

"You're here today because the president suffered a terrible moral lapse, a marital infidelity," Bumpers said. "Not a breach of the public trust, not a crime against society ... It was a breach of his family trust. It is a sex scandal. ... Nobody has suggested that Bill Clinton committed a political crime against the state."

Two months earlier, in his final speech as a senator on the Senate floor, Bumpers said he once met President Harry Truman, who told him, "The only time this country ever gets into trouble is when there is some so-and-so in the White House lying to the American people."

That line was removed from the transcript that was published by the Congressional Register. Somebody on Bumpers' staff took out the statement while trying to tighten and improve Bumpers' speech, according to his chief of staff at the time.

But after Bumpers' speech, in which he had said that too much had been made about Clinton lying to the public, Clinton was acquitted in the Senate on Feb. 12, 1999.


Bumpers and Clinton had been through a lot together.

Twelve years earlier, on a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron airplane heading from Little Rock to the Gillett Coon Supper, the plane hit a pile of ice and snow at the end of the runway while landing in nearby DeWitt. The impact mangled the propellers and sent the plane spinning out of control into a cotton field, where it came to rest with the nose on the ground and the tail up in the air.

Clinton, governor at the time, was telling Bumpers a story and seemed oblivious to the crash landing.

"I said, 'Bill, open that door. This thing's going to catch on fire!'" Bumpers told a crowd in Russellville in 2009 -- one of many audiences that heard that story over the years.

The two got out and made it to the raccoon supper.

Bumpers said the story is a testament to the importance of the annual Gillett Coon Supper as a must-attend event for Arkansas politicians.


Clinton tried to call Bumpers on Christmas Eve. Bumpers had just gotten home from the hospital and was in no condition to talk that night. Brent Bumpers fielded the call, talking with Clinton for 15 minutes to update him on Bumpers' condition.

On Saturday, Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement.

"Dale Bumpers was a governor of profound historical importance, the most eloquent defender of our Constitution in the Senate, a man who put his considerable gifts of wisdom, wit and passion to work for the common good," said the Clintons.

"For more than 40 years, Hillary and I cherished his friendship," said Bill Clinton. "I am grateful that his advice made me a better governor and president, and that we laughed at each other's jokes even when we'd heard them before. And I'm grateful that he welcomed Hillary to Arkansas and supported her in Washington.

"As governor, he gave us the revenue system that made modernization possible, especially in education. As senator, he had the courage to vote against both the tax cuts and spending increases that exploded our national debt, increased inequality and slowed growth. He championed efforts to protect the environment throughout his career. And first, last, and always he defended the Constitution -- its rights, responsibilities and rules."

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor served in the U.S. Senate for 18 years with Bumpers, and the two men became good friends.

"The thing about Dale Bumpers that will remain forever is how proud he made us feel as a state and as a people," Pryor said Saturday. "We were proud in Arkansas to say that Dale Bumpers represented Arkansas, and we were proud to say that we had a person like that in the governor's office and in the Senate who did not vote according to political polls.

"He voted his conscience and his conviction. And he, in my opinion, set a new standard for public service. I think Dale was in a league of his own. ... When he spoke on the Senate floor, people listened, and he led in a very firm but fair way. What an honor it was for me to serve alongside him during those years, to follow him in the governor's office to begin with and serve with him those years."

Pryor said that when he ran for governor in 1974, he called Bumpers for advice.

"Dale Bumpers said 'Just remember, it never hurts to be magnanimous,'" remembers Pryor.

Other Arkansas governors also issued statements Saturday.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson ran against Bumpers for the U.S. Senate seat in 1986.

"The entire state mourns the loss of an Arkansas legend," said Hutchinson. "In my first statewide race, Dale took me to school on Arkansas politics. He was a master storyteller, and his stump speaking was impossible to beat. From that first campaign in which we were competitors to the time we served together in Congress, I have admired Dale for his skill, heartfelt convictions and his sense of humor. After he retired, he continued to set an example of civic responsibility and good will during a time of increased partisanship in our nation."

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee had a similar experience when he tried to unseat Bumpers in 1992.

"I first knew him as a political opponent, and I must confess he beat me like a drum," said Huckabee. "Later, when I became governor and he was the senior senator, we worked very well together. ... Our political differences aside, he was a dedicated public servant who always reminded his audiences that 'public service is a noble calling.'"

Former Gov. Mike Beebe said Bumpers was his mentor. When Beebe was 26 years old, Bumpers appointed him to serve on the Arkansas State University board of trustees.

"It was my first introduction to any sort of public service," said Beebe. "An elite public speaker, Dale's passion for good policy and responsible government brought opponents to common ground and inspired the detached to become involved citizens. He paired his light-hearted swagger with his unabashed love for the Arkansans who carried him from a Charleston, Ark., law office to the halls of the U.S. Senate."

Former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker said Bumpers was a role model.

"I watched him with immense admiration," said Tucker. "I admired him so much. I just had the deepest respect for him as a person, a family man, a lawyer and a wonderful public servant who was always looking for the right thing to do, and what would work. I haven't known a nicer man or family."


Brooke Bumpers Low said her father was comfortable in the final years of his life.

"He got to stay at home with his wife of 66 years and be in his comfy reclining chair," she said.

Dale and Betty Bumpers liked to watch the birds in the backyard. For a while, the scenery included five Rhode Island red chickens that Betty had acquired.

"But she decided they were too much, and they were tearing up her yard," said Low. So Betty Bumpers got rid of the chickens.

Sometimes, the family would drive over to Franklin County and visit family cemeteries so Dale and Betty Bumpers could tell the grandchildren who people were and what they had done. It's how history passes from one generation to another in Arkansas.

Dale Bumpers is survived by his three children -- Brent, Bill and Brooke -- and seven grandchildren.

"As an aside," said Brent Bumpers, "he was obviously revered/worshipped by his three children, something he would rather people know than anything else about his life."

Information for this article was contributed by John Brummett of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the late Bill Simmons of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 01/03/2016

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