The world is less noble than it was 12 days ago. It's now without Betty Bumpers and George H.W. Bush.
That's not to liken them. It's merely to admire and miss them already.
Eras and lives defy precise definition. They don't occur in neat chapters. People aren't perfect; they're nuanced.
But these two were a darned-sight better than most.
It's generally true that Betty and Dale Bumpers were a team--remarkably exceptional, common and superior, warm and brutally direct. They accomplished nothing less than launching a still-limping era of political moderation and economic modernization in Arkansas.
I'm thinking of the last time I saw them together. He was beginning cognitive decline and she, still sharp, was tending to him. I was in a department store on Cantrell known for quality items at affordable prices. Here came greatness toward me--Betty leading the way into the menswear section, Dale lolling behind. She said she was trying to find pajamas for him. He said, "So this is where all quality merchandise that doesn't sell goes to die." She told him to hold it down, for heaven's sake.
It was a vintage Bumpers Moment. Even in cognitive decline, he could size up his surroundings. And she always was the one to scold or regulate him.
In crediting them with eras of moderation and modernizing, I'm not forgetting Sid McMath. He tried and succeeded in part as an earlier pioneer in a post-war reform movement in 1948. But his would-be progressive era got interrupted by race, of course. The courts in the 1950s ordered desegregated schools, and, fatefully, Arkansas abandoned progress for international disgrace.
That's except, of course, for the tiny hamlet of Charleston. Owing to the leadership of Betty's brother-in-law Archibald Schaffer as a school board member and Dale's as the board's lawyer, Charleston was the first school district in Arkansas to abide by Brown v. Board of Education and racially integrate.
And I'm not overlooking the epic transformation begun immediately pre-Bumpers by Winthrop Rockefeller. But he was hamstrung in that he was too far ahead of, and alien from, the good-ol'-boy Democratic state Legislature.
It was the Bumpers governorship from 1971-74 that launched a lasting era, reorganizing an absurdly frayed and corrupt state government and raising income taxes to fund schools and textbooks and new community colleges.
And it was the Bumpers' first ladyship that ... yes, I think so ... helped more people more consequentially. A mother first and most, the nurturer of three fine kids, Betty was aghast to learn that thousands of Arkansas children were not getting widely available immunizations. She launched a drive leading to near-universality of childhood immunizations in the state; then, with her husband promoted to the U.S. Senate, she made partners with First Lady Rosalyn Carter to do the same thing nationwide.
Betty's passing warranted a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said: "We at CDC mourn the passing of this great American. Her accomplishments will continue to be an inspiration to everyone working in public health."
As for George H.W. Bush: He was the last Greatest Generation president and an ideal representative thereof in his understated heroism and modest decency.
But it's also true that his political life coincided with the decline of the Connecticut Yankee's socially progressive Republicanism toward the right-wing low common denominator where it is now mired.
That's not to blame him. It's to say his imperfection was his competitive fire to win, to balance the responsible pragmatism with which he wanted to govern with an obliging of the right-wing resentments swelling up around him in his party.
He moved to Texas and, running there for office, came out against the Civil Rights Act he surely favored. As a candidate for president in 1980, he called Reaganomics "voodoo economics" until Reagan beat him and made him his running mate.
Like John McCain picking Sarah Palin, he conceded to the nutty right wing to choose an utterly unqualified Dan Quayle as his vice president. He benefited from the racist right-wing attack ad featuring Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis. He said, "read my lips, no new taxes," then raised taxes. He later explained that the problem wasn't doing the right thing as president, which he'd do again, but "going too far in my campaign rhetoric," which I figure he also would do again.
The uncomfortable concessions Bush made as a candidate provide a chart of the decline of Republican politics occurring in his time. But they didn't remotely chart his transcendent life, which was understatedly virtuous and endearing.
The fear is that these losses signal a decline in moderation and modernization amid a fading of modesty and decency.
We indeed ought to make America great again. We could best work toward that by striving to be strongly compassionate on public policy like Betty Bumpers and quietly good in our personal lives like George H.W. Bush.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 12/04/2018
Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: Missed already