A fine service was held for the late Sen. Dale Bumpers at First United Methodist Church in downtown Little Rock today. Funny, upbeat, positive.
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The prelude included, with brass voice, “We Shall Overcome.” The opening hymn was “A Mighty Fortress.” The opening scripture, the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 — “blessed are the poor… ” A choir anthem, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.”
Brent Bumpers, the senator’s son, spoke briefly. His father, he said, was a “lucky man.” He had his own family, a massive family of friends and supporters, a family of aides and staff. “On behalf of my mother, Bill and Brooke I want to thank you all for being here.”
Veteran journalist Ernest Dumas said, by the beautiful day, that Bumpers must have been forgiven for saying God did not part the Red Sea. He bemoaned being asked to speak with the likes of Bill Clinton and David Pryor, oratorical greats akin to Daniel Webster and Caesar. He said his presence likely grew from a speech Bumpers heard in which Dumas described the reforms Bumpers achieved as governor and an assessment that called him Arkansas’s one great governor. “Keep your notes,” Bumpers told him at the time. “I want you to say that at my funeral.” But Dumas said the obituaries had adequately addressed those. Instead, he tried to explain the “Dale Bumpers Phenomenon” Someone unknown, untested and underfinanced who beat giants and went on, despite naivete, to be successful. Someone who followed his conscience, never surrendering to political realities, voting for unpopular things and — despite that — being loved by voters or at least forgiven by them.
Said Dumas: He never ran a negative ad. He never uttered an unkind word about an opponent. There was a “magical sincerity” in his voice and words and ads that promised positive things for Arkansas, if not always specific ones. “I suspect everyone whoever shook hands with him voted for him the rest of their lives.” He was someone voters felt like would do what he thought was the right thing. And he lived that, Dumas said, with an obsession about ethics.
David Pryor began with a tribute to Betty Bumpers, which prompted a prolonged ovation. He credited Bumpers with an “unquenchable” thirst and faith in the American system. “He was one class act.” He recounted the Arkansas version of the “antique road show,” Bumpers and Pryor traveling around the state and telling stories without notes, script or planning. They poked fun at life and each other.
Pryor recalled Bumpers’ speech in support of President Clinton during impeachment. It prompted invitations from all over the world to speak. He said he’d told Bumpers it was the finest speech delivered in the Senate. “I agree with you,” Bumpers responded. Later, he said they shared a meal at the IHOP and they noticed some waitresses talking to each other. They thought sure the waitresses had recognized them and would soon be asking them about recent events. Indeed, one walked up and asked: “Which one of y’all used to be sheriff around here?”
Bumpers was a consumate parade marshal, Pryor said. He believed every speech should be a performance. He used emotion to fire hope. He believed his father’s advice that politics was a noble profession. He was, said Pryor, a “giant of a man.” He closed with the comment he heard this week at a grocery store, “There will never be another Dale Bumpers.” Added Pryor, “Truer words have never been spoken.”
Bill Clinton closed, beginning a bit more than an hour into the service. “I am mindful of how long we’ve been here,” he said. He remembered being one of 23 speakers at a dinner in Pine Bluff for Henry Wilkins. He said Bumpers was at the end. He got up and said, “You know, we’ve been here so long, I’m hungry again.” It won many friends. On another occasion, with Bumpers at a sweltering bridge dedication, he recounted how they’d made a wager on who could give the shortest speech. Bumpers spoke first and spoke for a minute and 5 seconds. Clinton came next and spoke 45 seconds. Clinton said Bumpers paid him the $5 on the spot.
Clinton turned serious. He said what Bumpers did as governor made what successors did possible. His income tax increases are inconceivable today. But he was still a fiscal conservative, Clinton said. The revenue stabilization act, which prohibits deficit spending, keeps governors out of trouble. But the income tax base helped subsequent governors make it through hard times and to meet new needs. “He made modern Arkansas possible,” Clinton said.
He said it allowed, for example, Gov. Mike Beebe to endure a recession without mass layoffs or pension cuts. He told Gov. Asa Hutchinson that he could say, “He even left me the money to cut taxes.” The income tax allowed property taxes to remain low, which made Arkansas a retirement haven.
He recounted meeting Bumpers in 1974 when Bumpers encouraged him to vote for Clinton’s mentor, Sen. J. William Fulbright, but that he said he thought his own election would prove in time to be better for Arkansas. He said that, in 20 years, if he, Clinton, felt the same, he should challenge Bumpers. “And I thought, boy, is he good.”
He repeated what many believed, that if Dale Bumpers had run for president he would have won.
“He was a man of uncommon gifts who always marched to the beat of his own drummer.”
Clinton, too, paid tribute to Betty Bumpers’ work on nuclear disarmament and childhood immunizations. He said Bumpers was as proud of her work as anything he did as senator. He emphasized Bumpers’ fiscal conservatism, including his lonely vote against tax cuts and spending increases in the Reagan years. He recounted, too, Bumpers’ vote on the Panama Canal treaty and votes time and again against constitutional amendments of the moment. Clinton, too, talked of the impeachment speech, from Bumpers’ invocation of Adam and Eve to his acknowledgment that he was speaking for a friend. But he noted that Bumpers had said he came not to defend a friend, but to defend the Constitution, a document Bumpers said “was more precious to me than any but the Holy Bible.” He proceeded to give a “detailed, academic history” of the “provision in question.” Clinton said it was characteristic of Bumpers, who didn’t want people to act on emotion.
“I loved Dale Bumpers. I loved every moment we spent together.”
This gave rise to the familiar story of a Bumpers-Clinton flight in icy weather to the Gillett Coon Supper (Clinton advice on coon: eat lots of beans, slaw and barbecue sauce.) They had a crash landing, skidding on ice. In Bumpers’ account, Clinton kept talking throughout. Clinton said Bumpers had later sent him a photo of the crashed plane with a note about the night they both almost “bought the farm.”
Clinton invoked Wordsworth’s writing of the “little unremembered acts” that contributed to Bumpers’ greatness. Clinton recalled Bumpers’ advice never to talk down to anyone. “He always tried to lift people up, to elevate them, to ennoble them.”
Clinton brought a prop to close — a sheet with one-line reminders of favorite jokes, something he said he learned from Bumpers, who always spoke from jotted notes. Just looking at them is a spirit lifter, Clinton said. “When I learned he passed away, I got this list. And whenever I have a moment of ridiculous self-pity or unproductive anger or something that doesn’t make people better, I’m going to get out this list and remember Dale Bumpers.”
Rev. Ed Matthews, a Methodist minister, praised Bumpers as a “Christian statesman,” but not the sort who wore religion on his sleeve.
The service ended with “Ode to Joy.” The recessional by trumpet and organ seemed particularly apt: “What a Wonderful World.” Then came “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” the Navy hymn for the Marine veteran.
A number of U.S. senators made a trip to Little Rock for the service.