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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 Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 12/04/2018

Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: Missed already


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  • RP57
    December 4, 2018 at 7:21 a.m.

    This column sums up John Brummett. He has nothing but praise for Betty Bumpers and spends the bulk of the section on George H.W. Bush talking about the decline of the Republican Party. Bush lived a life devoted to public service, starting with serving our country during wartime. I rarely read Brummett but seeing the topic I thought it would give it a chance. I’m sorry I wasted my time and that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette continues to employ him.

  • RBear
    December 4, 2018 at 7:45 a.m.

    Cancel your subscription, RP. I'm sure your life will be more "fulfilling." Quite honestly after talking to several of my Republican friends here and in Texas where HW was a fixture, Brummett is spot on with his comments about the elder Bush. Bush was one of those great presidents who understood the dignity of the office, unlike the current office holder. In some ways, I'm sorry I wasted my time reading your comment.

  • Knuckleball1
    December 4, 2018 at 7:51 a.m.

    Great Article John, they both will be missed.

  • hah406
    December 4, 2018 at 8:19 a.m.

    "But they didn't remotely chart his transcendent life, which was understatedly virtuous and endearing." RP that is high praise. A transcendent life, virtuous and endearing. What part of that do you think JB was using to talk down about President Bush?

  • Skeptic1
    December 4, 2018 at 8:33 a.m.

    You just couldn't do it, you and the rest of our ilk cannot show decency for one minute lest you lose an opportunity to smear those you disagree with. Same on you.

  • GeneralMac
    December 4, 2018 at 8:37 a.m.

    John Brummett bemoans the Republican decline of "socially progressive".

    I don't !

    Men marrying men
    Women marrying women
    Men wearing a skirt and using women's bathrooms
    Men enlisting, then stating they "feel they are female" in order for taxpayers to fund their surgical mutilation.

    What John Brummett bemoans as "decline of progressive"is simply advocating perversion.

  • odinson
    December 4, 2018 at 8:37 a.m.

    Leave it to the deplorababies to take a perfectly good farewell to two great Americans (politics aside) and turn it side ways. Everything JB write us true including his slam of democrats and race in the 60s. Pity trumplings refuse to take off their GOP hate glasses to see truth sitting on their noses.

    I'd never vote for Bush (HW, W or Jeb), but I admire the men for what they've tried to do.

  • RBear
    December 4, 2018 at 8:45 a.m.

    "Same on you" too, skeptic. Brummett is just saying what MOST of the nation feels about this current president, while holding up with honor a president who understood and exemplified the dignity of the office and the party.
    Oh and if you want to attack someone for lack of dignity, how about looking at your good buddy fake.

  • mozarky2
    December 4, 2018 at 8:54 a.m.

    All Americans should commend the Bush family for not using this week as an occasion for settling of grudges, as the McCain family did. But then, the Bushes are just a different class of people altogether.
    Bush 41 insisted that President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump be invited to attend his funeral, and you can be sure that the eulogies will not be filled with bitterness at the current President, because that is not how the Bush family has ever done things. Again, just a different class of people.

  • 3WorldState1
    December 4, 2018 at 8:55 a.m.

    Everyone makes the difference between the two because we really want and need a President to act like a President, and not both a morally and criminally corrupt individual. Americans want that so bad. But there is no way to shame those that have no shame. So in a sense you are right, we should stop trying to project to the idiot in Chief how a President should be and act. But that is a hard ask. We are Americans. Americans want to be better - want to be leaders of the world. And we are neither of those now.