A giant of Arkansas politics, former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers, died last night at his Little Rock home. He was 90 and had been in failing health.
The family sent this message:
It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our father and husband, Senator Dale Bumpers. He passed away Friday night, January 1, in his home surrounded by our family. We want to thank his many friends and colleagues who have supported him and us over the years. While most people knew him as a great governor, senator and public servant, we remember him best as a loving father and husband who gave us unconditional love and support and whose life provided wonderful guidance on how to be a compassionate and productive person. Arrangements for his memorial service are being handled by Roller-Chenal Funeral Homes.
Betty, Brent, Bill and Brooke Bumpers
One of the first comments of dozens to arrive comes from former Gov. Mike Beebe, who touches on how Bumpers combined a successful politician’s ego with a knack for story-telling and humor that sometimes even acknowledged his own ego.
“Dale Bumpers gave me my start in public service and remained my dear friend and mentor throughout the decades that followed. 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, Arkansas, law office to the halls of the U.S. Senate.” – Mike Beebe
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, once vanquished in a race with Bumpers, said:
The entire state mourns the loss of an Arkansas legend. 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. We will all miss Dale.”
I turn to Ernest Dumas, who covered Bumpers from his rise to the governorship in 1970 through his senatorial days and remained close to Bumpers, for his obituary. Coming later are outtakes of Bumpers’ stories from an 11-hour interview he did with Dumas for the oral history project at the University of Arkansas.
By ERNEST DUMAS
Dale Bumpers, whom a poll of historians and political scientists in 1998 ranked as Arkansas’s only great governor of the 20th century and who served for nearly a quarter of a century in the U.S. Senate, died Friday night at his home at Little Rock.
Bumpers, who was 90, fractured a hip in a fall at his home in early December. His health had declined for a year and he could not regain his equilibrium after the fall and surgery.
Although Bumpers’s magical election in 1970, when he went from small-town oblivion to triumph over two of the greatest politicians of the era, established his reputation as a giant killer and the most successful reformer in the state’s history, it was only preparation for a career in Washington that he expected to lead to the presidency. He was celebrated as the finest orator in Congress, but the presidency eluded him. Twice he made some preparation to run but he backed out each time. He ended his career a month after retiring in 1999 by making the final defense of President Clinton in his impeachment trial before the Senate. The speech was regarded as the best oration in Congress of the 20th century.
Politics and the notion of public service were Bumpers’ passion since childhood, when his father imbued in him the ideas that it was the noblest of callings and that he could be president one day and, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, perform wonders for his country. But Dale Leon Bumpers spent his early adult years practicing law, running a hardware store and raising three children in a tiny town east of Fort Smith and didn’t enter politics seriously until 1970, when at the age of 45 he suddenly ran for governor in a crowd of well-known Democratic politicians seeking to unseat Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, who was running for a third term.
Though unknown and a political naïf who had little money and no connections, Bumpers vanquished a six-term governor, the hitherto unbeatable Orval E. Faubus, and also the popular attorney general, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the former president of the Arkansas Bar Association and three other men with political experience in the Democratic primaries and then defeated Gov. Rockefeller in a landslide. An aide to Rockefeller confided that the governor had spent close to $10 million on his re-election effort. Vice President Spiro Agnew, who came to Fort Smith to campaign for Rockefeller, scoffed that Bumpers had nothing going for him but “a smile and a shoeshine.” Agnew’s description followed Bumpers for years.
The victory established Bumpers as a political giant killer. In the course of his 28-year career, he defeated four men who had served or would serve as governor—Faubus, Rockefeller, Mike Huckabee (in a 1992 Senate race) and Asa Hutchinson (in a 1986 Senate race), all by large margins, in addition to one of the state’s most distinguished and longest-serving senators, J. William Fulbright.
Two rare characteristics marked the Bumpers political phenomenon. He didn’t criticize his political opponents or run negative ads about them because his father thought such conduct was unseemly, and he followed his own, usually liberal, instincts as both governor and senator, disregarding polls or conventional wisdom about what politicians could do in a deeply conservative electorate. Votes for taxes, civil rights, unrestrained free speech and even returning the Panama Canal to Panama barely diminished his popularity.
Distressed by the growing incivility in Congress—Republican senators had been among his closest friends—Bumpers did not run again in 1998 and soon afterward moved home to Little Rock.
As governor, Bumpers pushed tax increases through the legislature and as a senator he voted against President Ronald Reagan’s big 1982 tax cut, accurately predicting that it would produce mammoth budget deficits, but he voted for Reagan’s tax increases that followed and those of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He fought constitutional amendments pushed by other Southern senators that amended the Bill of Rights to make government-sponsored prayer in the schools legal, protect flags from being used in protests and prevent busing to achieve school integration. After his retirement in 1999, Bumpers marveled that Arkansas voters had tolerated his excursions from conservative orthodoxy and always returned him to office. He thought fund-raising was corrupting for politicians, particularly in legislative bodies, and was grateful that Arkansas voters never made him do much of it.
Although he confessed many years later that he hated every day that he was governor, those consequential four years established Bumpers’s reputation. In 1998, Dr. Cal Ledbetter and Dr. Fred Williams, the political science and history chairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, did a survey of political scientists and historians asking them to evaluate and rank all the 20th century Arkansas governors from Jeff Davis through Mike Huckabee, who was then in his first term. Bumpers emerged as the only “great” governor, owing to the raft of reforms achieved in the four years through the passage of laws and executive decisions.
When he was elected, Bumpers recalled in an oral history with the University of Arkansas in 2000, he had little idea about what to do with the job. But he took a number of reforms proposed a few years earlier by Democrats for Arkansas, a liberal Democratic group headed by Dr. H. D. Luck of Arkadelphia, several of them advanced by Rockefeller but rejected by the legislature, and passed them in the 1971 and 1973 assemblies. They included a reorganization of state government that grouped some 60 state agencies into 13 departments, the only increase in the state personal income tax since its enactment in 1927, the first state funding for kindergartens and free high school textbooks. Until 1971, the state had paid only for elementary school books.
Bumpers forced the Senate and House of Representatives to vote eight times to pass the income tax and four times to pass the cigarette tax (both taxes required a three-fourths vote in each house) after legislators promised him their votes but ducked out of the chambers for the roll calls. Bumpers’s legislative aide dragged one senator out of the men’s room to cast a deciding vote just before the gavel sounded ending the roll call. The House of Representatives was ready to increase the sales tax sponsored by Rep. Ode Maddox, which was backed by the Arkansas Education Association and which Rockefeller had sought to raise, but Bumpers said he would veto it because the sales tax landed too heavily on poor people. It never came to a vote.
The income tax, a nickel increase in excise taxes on cigarette and tobacco products and a burst of economic growth fueled other Bumpers expansions of government. He opened new community colleges and vocational-technical schools around the state, expanded and upgraded the state parks, expanded the state’s residential facility for disabled children at Conway into a statewide system and took advantage of other subsidies for health services under the 1965 federal Medicare and Medicaid law, including mental health programs. Schools were given the largest increases in aid for teacher salaries in history to that point. The legislature passed his bill in 1973 requiring public schools for the first time to educate disabled children, in regular classrooms wherever possible. He began a roadbuilding program for rural roads financed by a 1973 increase in motor-fuel taxes and by diverting most of the state’s federal revenue-sharing funds to country roads. Surplus funds each of his four years paid for capital projects at all the state-supported colleges. The poorly funded and moribund all-black Arkansas AM and N College at Pine Bluff and Arkansas A and M College at Monticello became campuses of the University of Arkansas system.
Guided by Dr. Roger Bost, his children’s pediatrician, whom he put in charge of the human services department, he expanded enrollment in the state medical school to turn out more physicians, began a loan-forgiveness program for medical students who spent at least five years practicing in Arkansas small towns, established regional residency programs to distribute young doctors across underserved parts of the state, closed the state’s tuberculosis sanatoria since antibiotics had made sanatoria obsolete, passed a law over the opposition of the Arkansas Medical Society that gave osteopaths hospital and prescription-writing privileges throughout the state, again in the hope that it would lure them to small towns that couldn’t attract family doctors.
His wife Betty’s work also became a part of his legacy. She directed a statewide campaign using the state health offices, medical institutions and the National Guard to get every child in Arkansas vaccinated against the communicable childhood diseases in 1974. It effectively eradicated measles, mumps, diphtheria and rubella and dramatically reduced whooping cough and chicken pox. When Jimmy Carter became president, the Bumperses persuaded Carter to undertake a similar campaign nationally and by 1990 the impact of the old childhood diseases nationally was minimal. Bumpers amended vaccine appropriations into the federal budget.
School districts across southern and eastern Arkansas were ordered by the federal government to desegregate in 1969 and Arkansas sought to join other Southern states that encouraged the success of private academies for white children by allowing teachers in the academies to participate in the tax-supported state teacher retirement system. Bumpers told legislators he would veto the bill if they passed it.
Bumpers was born Aug. 12, 1925, at Charleston, the county seat of southern Franklin County. His father was William Rufus Bumpers, an Irishman, and his mother was the former Lattie Jones, who had Irish and Welsh ancestors. The elder Bumpers taught school and farmed 40 acres on an Ozark hillside in the Cecil community until their first son died from eating a bad watermelon. His mother declared that she was not going to have children on the lonely farm only to see them die for lack of a doctor, so they moved to Charleston, where there was sometimes a doctor. Dale Bumpers was the youngest of three children who survived to adulthood.
In Charleston, his father clerked in a grocery store and later became a partner in a hardware and furniture store and still later a funeral home. Funeral homes were usually associated with hardware stores, which built the caskets. His father, who was fascinated by politics and by Roosevelt, was a good speaker and was in demand for banquets and funerals. The elder Bumpers was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1932 at the depth of the Depression and wanted to run for Congress, but his wife made him quit because she feared they were going to starve.
Bumpers’s gregarious father became president of the Arkansas Retail Hardware Association and, on $300 given him by the state association, took the family to the national convention at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in the family’s 1936 Ford. They went to a giant church to hear the famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson preach; she wasn’t there but Bumpers and his older brother, Carroll, got to go onstage and say where they were from. It was his first taste of the limelight. Forty years later, as a senator, Bumpers made a keynote speech at a convention at the Biltmore in which he recalled being ashamed of his homemade clothes when he entered the Biltmore convention hall as a boy.
After high school, Bumpers enrolled at the University of Arkansas but during World War II he came home, joined the Marine Corps and was on a troop ship headed for the Pacific theater when President Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered. He finished at the university and enrolled in the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago to fulfill his father’s wish that his sons (his elder brother Carroll was enrolled in the Harvard Law School) become lawyers and enter politics.
Their parents were killed in an accident in 1949 when their car was hit by a drunk driver while they were returning from a small vegetable farm they had acquired west of Fort Smith.
Bumpers skipped a semester and returned to Northwestern to get his law degree. He said he had picked Northwestern in Chicago because if he were going to be president, as his father expected, he needed to broaden his rural perspective and see what urban life and culture were all about.
Bumpers married Betty Flanagan, his high school sweetheart, in the fall of 1949. He borrowed money to buy out his father’s partner in the Charleston hardware store and opened a law office in a room in the back of the store. He later moved the office across the street into the back of the bank building and dashed back and forth across the street to tend to the store and his clients. His gross income as a lawyer the first year was $64 and doubled the next year. But he soon established a reputation as a superb lawyer, particularly in jury trials. He lost only two jury trials in 15 years.
Although his Ozark town was some distance removed from the biracial South where the great civil rights battles were joined, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision outlawing racially segregated schools in 1954 pulled Bumpers into the eddies of the coming maelstrom. and reaffirmed his father’s expectation that politics and public office were his destiny.
Weeks after the decision in 1954, the Charleston school superintendent came to him, the community’s only lawyer, and asked what the decision meant for his schools. Bumpers said integration was now the law of the land and the law had to be obeyed, and better sooner than later. Charleston had a tiny elementary school two miles east of town and one teacher for the handful of black children, and the half-dozen or so high school students were taken by bus to an African-American school in Fort Smith. Bumpers said integration could be achieved easily in the fall term and he suggested that it could be sold as a big tax savings. All the separate cost of the black grade school and busing the high school students to Fort Smith could be saved and spent upgrading the existing schools. The superintendent asked him to persuade the school board and the business community. The school board voted to integrate immediately.
Charleston was the only school district in the South that totally integrated in 1954. The night the board voted to integrate, Bumpers’s brother-in-law, Archie Schaffer II, announced he was resigning from the board to work for a year in Korea, and the board appointed Bumpers to take his place. The integration went smoothly—there was no statewide publicity about the integration—except for the refusal of a few schools to let Charleston’s black students play football on their fields and the band’s trombone player being banned from the bi-state band festival because he was black.
“We knuckled under to that,” Bumpers would recall 55 years later. “I’ve always been embarrassed about that. We should have told them we won’t play you, but we didn’t.”
But real trouble was only delayed.
When Gov. Orval E. Faubus sent the National Guard to Central High School to block the entrance of nine black children in 1957, it occurred to some in Charleston that their school didn’t have to integrate either. There was a move to return to segregated schools, but in a school board election Bumpers and an ally defeated two candidates who ran on the promise to send blacks back to their own schools. Bumpers would recall getting gallons of turpentine and stiff brooms from his hardware store the night before school opening and, with the janitor and a helper, scrubbing off graffiti that had been painted early in the evening in giant block letters across the front of the high school: “niggers stay home.”
“I drove down to the school the next morning because I knew who the culprits were just as well as I knew my name, and I wanted to see the look on their faces when they realized that artwork of theirs on the side of the school building was gone,” he said. “Sure enough, they came and you could just see the look of disappointment all over their faces.”
When a truckload of hooligans terrorized a black family on a road outside town one night, Bumpers drove his ’54 Pontiac into the family’s yard and sat with the father on the porch far into the night. When the hooligans saw Bumpers’s car they stopped shouting and cursing, stopped at a distance and finally drove away.
As a senator, Bumpers had Charleston designated as a national commemorative site in recognition of its being the first school district in the South to totally integrate after the Brown decision.
Bumpers decided to launch his political career in 1962 and ran for the House of Representatives from Franklin County but realized almost immediately that it was hopeless. He ran against Mike Womack, the Franklin County circuit clerk, who lived in the far more populous part of the county north of the Arkansas River. Bumpers went through the motions of campaigning and was beaten handily.
“I really felt that I had done what my father wanted me to do and I didn’t ever want to go through that again,” he remembered. “I didn’t think I would ever run again. I went back to that law office the next day and started to make money. That was my goal at that point, to make money. I did a pretty good job of it.”
In 1968, he toyed with running for governor. His father-in-law, H. E. “Babe” Flanagan, walked into his house one morning and woke him and Betty up.
“You going to run for governor?” Flanagan asked. Bumpers said he wasn’t sure. Flanagan tossed 15 $100 bills on the table, the amount of the filing fee. He told Bumpers to drive down to Little Rock and file. “I’ll mow your pasture and your meadow, too.” Bumpers had sold his hardware store and bought 44 Angus cows that Flanagan had found for sale in Tupelo, Miss.
But his friend Ted Boswell of Bryant, a trial lawyer, had announced for governor and Bumpers concluded that the two of them would split progressive votes so that neither would have a chance. Boswell was nosed out of the Democratic runoff with Marion Crank, who lost to Rockefeller. Two years later, Bumpers decided to run.
He had about $10,000 to spend on the race, owing largely to the sale of his Angus herd. Brother Carroll, an Illinois business executive, pitched in $15,000 and together they persuaded his skeptical sister, who had made a fortune at Cleveland in the vending business, to donate $20,000 to the cause.
The Democratic race featured Faubus, who had retired undefeated four years earlier and had remarried; Attorney General Joe Purcell of Benton; House Speaker Hayes C. McClerkin of Texarkana; Robert C. Compton of El Dorado, former president of the Arkansas Bar Association; Bill G. Wells of Hermitage, a former legislator and radio personality who had barely missed being elected lieutenant governor in 1968; Jim Malone of England, a catfish farmer who was regarded as a great stump speaker; a wisecracking West Memphis businessman named William S. Cheek; and Bumpers.
Rockefeller’s pollster, Eugene Newsom, had Bumpers’s name recognition as less than 1 percent, the lowest of all the candidates.
Bumpers used the $50,000 to purchase a few billboards, run some newspaper ads and buy a little television time—usually 30-second spots and sometimes longer ones where he perched on a stool without notes and talked about overcoming all the strife, bringing people together to get things done for the state, and always being honest and candid with people about where he stood.
He was going to improve education, get medical care to people in rural areas, and protect the state’s air and streams. Polls shortly before the primary showed that he had climbed but was nowhere near Faubus and Purcell, the frontrunners. But he nosed out Purcell for the second spot and defeated Faubus 260,000 to 183,000 in the runoff.
Faubus had ignored Bumpers in the first primary and then characterized Bumpers as a “flaming liberal” who had supported Rockefeller in the past. He tried to make fun of Bumpers.
“The Arkansas Gazette wants to set up the same sort of gently contested race you would find for the king and queen of a charity ball at some country club,” Faubus said in a televised speech before the election. “Bumpers versus Rockefeller battling it out, tux to tux, cocktail to cocktail, boyish grin to boyish grin. No hard feelings, it’s nothing serious.”
So Bumpers joked about all the big country clubs there were in Charleston, Ark. He never denied that he had voted for Rockefeller nor did he criticize Faubus.
Rockefeller confronted the same act in the general election. He insinuated that while Bumpers may look like a fresh face he was part of the same old machine. Bumpers received 62 percent of the votes against Rockefeller and Walter Carruth, the candidate of George Wallace’s American Party.
Bumpers would later say that as a senator he missed the satisfaction that he had as governor, knowing every day when you went to work that you were not spinning your wheels but actually getting things done and making things measurably better for people. But he also made it a torturous job. In his first days in office events brought home to him that 30,000 government employees worked for him and that there was the potential every day of corruption, self-dealing and influence peddling.
He sent a new aide home for trying to influence a liquor permit and demanded the resignation of a parole official appointed by Rockefeller for seeking payoffs from prisoner families. He worried every night that his children would read about some scandal, some wrongdoing in their daddy’s government. When a political opponent in his 1972 re-election race said Bumpers had been handed a paper sack full of hundred-dollar bills at the Buffalo, N.Y., airport from the scandal-ridden owners of the racetrack at West Memphis Bumpers despaired that people would believe he would do something like that.
He directed that all gifts of any kind that reached his office be returned with a letter explaining that he could not accept theirs or any gift. Days after taking office, he went home to the Mansion in the evening to find an expensive Rolex watch, the price tag still affixed, from a Camden businessman who wanted to be reappointed to the State Police Commission. Bumpers returned it with the letter and, of course, didn’t reappoint him. Later that year, the State Police told him that a new inmate in the penitentiary claimed that he had been hired by the businessman to kill the governor but that he had been convicted of another crime before he could get around to it. Bumpers told the State Police to warn the businessman that he would be the suspect if any harm came to the governor or his family.
Bumpers said the happiest day of his life was the first day he woke up and was not governor of Arkansas anymore and not responsible for the ethical lapses of anyone in the government. As a senator with a tiny staff he never again carried that burden.
In 1974, Bumpers talked to some friends about running for president in 1976. His friend Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia, made that race and won. But on the Saturday deadline he set for himself to make a decision about whether to run for a third two-year term, which would position him to run for president in 1976, or to run for the Senate against Senator Fulbright, he decided to run for the Senate. A poll showed that Fulbright, after five terms, was likely to be beaten by someone, most likely by a conservative like former Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson, who had lost narrowly to Fulbright six years earlier. Bradley D. Jesson of Fort Smith, his close friend and adviser, had spent the previous day with Bumpers and was shocked that he announced for the Senate. Jesson said Bumpers, much the better politician, would have defeated Carter with little trouble.
The race with Fulbright was over before it started. Fulbright waged a well-financed campaign, came home and campaigned in shirtsleeves but lost nearly 2 to 1. Bumpers never uttered the slightest criticism of him, other than to say that seniority was not all that it was cracked up to be. Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd and other powerful senators came to Arkansas to campaign for Fulbright. They said Arkansas could not stand to lose Fulbright’s seniority.
But defeating a senator so revered in Washington and by his colleagues was costly to his career. He received the worst committee assignments in the Senate. The majority leader and Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington, who chaired the committee making committee assignments, saw to it that Bumpers did not serve on any high-profile committee or one that dealt with major issues or constituencies.
His big committee was aeronautics and space. He chaired a subcommittee that conducted hearings on the shrinkage of the Earth’s ozone layer, which led to the world’s elimination of chlorofluorocarbons, the gases used in aerosol sprays that were burning up the ozone layer and subjecting people to cancer risks. Eventually, he got assigned to the Appropriations Committee, which enabled him to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to Arkansas in capital improvements for parks, agricultural research, wilderness preservation and flood-control improvements. He delivered so much in agricultural improvements that the University of Arkansas named its College of Agriculture after him.
At lunch one day someone asked how he got the university to name the college after him. It was easy, he said. “I took your money and gave it to them.”
His work on the Appropriations Committee added 91,000 acres of forest land in eastern Arkansas to federal wilderness lands controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service being designated as national wilderness areas. Last year, Congress designated the 160,000 acres of wilderness along the White River as the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge.
Almost from his first days in the Senate, he fought with western senators and interests to end the virtual giveaway of mineral leases on millions of acres of federal lands to mining and oil-and-gas interests, which took away billions of dollars of minerals and paid the country as little as $2.50 an acre. Finally, in 1994, he persuaded Congress to enact a moratorium prohibiting future patenting of federal land for which mining claims had not yet been made. He did succeed in 1987 in passing the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, which began competitive leasing of public lands, such as those around Fort Chaffee near his home, for competitive market prices. It produced hundreds of millions of dollars a year for federal treasury.
Two of his biggest triumphs were to terminate the proposed Superconducting Super Collider and the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, massive experimental projects in Tennessee and Texas that were to cost the taxpayers billions of dollars. He unsuccessfully fought other big government projects, including the manned space station and weapons programs that he said the nation’s security did not need.
Although he was not a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education and Labor, he played a leading role in major international health developments. He led the fight to fund global polio vaccinations, which led to the eradication of polio in all but a few countries. On the Appropriations Committee he pushed funding for cervical cancer screening and the Maternal and Child Health Program. In recognition of his and his wife’s work on immunizations, the National Institutes for Health after he left Washington dedicated the Dale and Betty Bumper Vaccine Research Center.
His first legislative victory as senator was passage of a law in 1975 letting driver make right turns on red lights if traffic was clear. The nation was in the midst of an energy crisis and he said drivers would save millions of gallons of gas a year if they did not have to idle at corners where the traffic was light.
As he did as governor, Bumpers marched to his own drummer, usually at odds with nearly all Southern members of Congress, on constitutional amendments, taxes and social justice. He usually came home, made speeches explaining unpopular votes like school prayer, flag desecration, racial busing, taxes and foreign policy. In 1981, he was one of only three senators who voted for unpopular budget cuts but against popular tax cuts, the key components of President Reagan’s program. He said the tax cuts would lead to huge budget deficits, which they did.
If voters were dissatisfied, they never manifested it at the polls, except after his vote ratifying the treaty that returned control of the Panama Canal to the country of Panama. Bumpers said later that if he had had a strong opponent in 1980 he would have been beaten. He lost his home county in the Democratic primary that year.
When Republicans ran against him in 1980, 1986 and 1992 they cited GOP roll-call analyses that Bumpers had voted with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the liberal icon, 98 (or similar numbers) percent of the time. They have it exactly backwards, Bumpers would say. “Ted Kennedy voted with me 98 percent of the time.”
As a senator, Bumpers developed a close friendship and alliance with David Pryor, who followed him in the governor’s office and in the Senate. It was one of the rare instances in the Senate where there was not a natural rivalry between senators of the same state and even of the same party.
He admired President Clinton both for his skills and his toughness. Bumpers briefly ran for president in 1983–84, making the midterm “cattle shows” of the candidates and getting glowing reviews by political commentators, but pulled out early, owing partly to his and his wife’s fragile health at the time, but also to the gnawing conclusion that he simply was not prepared for the brutal campaigns that were developing and the need to raise lots of money. But in 1987 he actually made extensive preparations to run for the nomination in 1988 and called a news conference. Many Democratic senators lined up to support him. But knee surgeries left him in considerable pain and he changed his mind at the last minute and did not run. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, his biggest supporter, then made the race along with two other Senate friends, Joe Biden of Delaware and Al Gore of Tennessee. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis won the nomination and was beaten by George H.W. Bush.
After watching at close hand the partisan assault on Clintons from the beginning of his 1992 campaign through eight years of his presidency, Bumpers said a few years ago that he had finally realized that if had been tormented by the silly charge that he took a bag of bills at a New York airport while he was taking his daughter to a Massachusetts hospital and by the trifling ethical slips by people who worked under him he could not have survived the continual assaults on a president. He eventually decided that his father would not have been disappointed in him.
After retiring, Bumpers briefly ran a defense think tank and associated with a Washington, D.C., law firm but sold his home and moved to his home in Little Rock. His eldest son, Brent Bumpers, was a federal prosecutor at Little Rock and then a businessman. His other son, Bill Bumpers, practices environmental law with a Washington law firm. His daughter, Brooke, who also is a lawyer with a Washington firm, moved back to Little Rock with her family but continues her practice.
UPDATE: Mike Huckabee, who ran a particularly nasty race in losing to Bumpers in 1992 (he branded Bumpers a pornographer for his support for grants to artists), was magnanimous today. His statement:
Janet and I were deeply saddened by the news of Senator Bumpers’ death. I first knew him as a political opponent and I must confess he beat me like a drum. Later, when I became Governor and he was the Senior Senator we worked very well together. Senator Bumpers was extremely helpful to the state and to me personally. His distinguished service to his country in the Marine Corps, to his state as a Governor and Senator is a legacy of which his family can be justly proud. Our political differences aside, he was a dedicated public servant who always reminded his audiences that ‘public service is a noble calling.’ His wife Betty is also a proud public servant who was a strong ally of Janet’s efforts to promote childhood immunizations and renovate the Governor’s mansion. Betty and the family are in our prayers.