Dale Bumpers must be a patron saint for anyone who dreams of coming from nowhere and winning whatever the greatest prize in that person's chosen profession happens to be. Bumpers' profession — his calling, if you choose to call it that — was in politics.
He may not be the patron saint of all such people, though. Jimmy Carter, who overcame low name recognition to win the presidency, must hold that title for presidential aspirants. But for those with low name recognition who seek lesser offices, well, they couldn't do better than to have Bumpers on their side.
I spent most of the first 30 years of my life in Arkansas, and it often seemed as if Bumpers, who died Friday at the age of 90, had always been a part of the state's political scene, but the truth was that he spent the first 18 years of his career, after serving in World War II and then studying law at Northwestern, in virtual obscurity as a mostly unknown city attorney in the town where he was born — Charleston, a village in Northwest Arkansas.
He entered state politics in 1970 as a Democratic candidate for governor. The incumbent was a Republican so the Democratic primary was crowded. Bumpers was polling at 1% when he entered the race, but he elbowed his way into a runoff with former Gov. Orval Faubus and won it easily. Then, in the general election, he handily defeated the incumbent, Winthrop Rockefeller, in the process earning the reputation of political giant killer.
That wasn't the last giant he toppled, either. In 1974, after serving two two–year terms as governor, Bumpers challenged five–term Sen. Bill Fulbright in the primary and won by a 2–to–1 margin. He went on to serve four terms in the U.S. Senate.
His most memorable moment in the Senate most likely came a few weeks after his retirement from it in 1999, when he was asked to deliver a closing argument in Bill Clinton's Senate impeachment trial. "H.L. Mencken said one time, 'When you hear somebody say, 'This is not about the money,' it's about the money," Bumpers said. "And when you hear somebody say, 'This is not about sex,' it's about sex."
I always love it when someone works in a quote from Mencken.
Bumpers was frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, and I always thought he would have been a good one. He did whatever he thought was right, not what he thought would win him votes. It's my understanding that, even after serving as governor and senator over a period of nearly 30 years, the accomplishment of which he was most proud was playing an important role in the integration of the school district in his hometown — the first in the old Confederacy.
He always had a sunny disposition, whether he actually believed what he said or not. The thing was that he could make others believe it.
I recall when I was on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma, and I attended a lecture being given by former Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, the year Bumpers was re–elected governor in a landslide. After the lecture, I went up to McGovern to introduce myself and shake his hand. I told him I had seen him once, late in that '72 campaign when he made a brief stop at the Little Rock airport, and a crowd of both the curious and the committed gathered in a hangar to see him.
McGovern told me he remembered that stop because Bumpers had assured him he would carry Arkansas when the votes were counted about a week later. It didn't work out that way. Richard Nixon carried 69% of the vote, the first time in precisely one century that Arkansas voted for a Republican for president. It has now done so in all but three of the 10 presidential elections that have been held since — and native son Clinton was the Democrats' nominee in two of those elections.
But through that transition, Bumpers continued to win elections. When he was elected governor, observers speculated that he would be one of a new breed of Southern governors — a group that, at the time, included the likes of Jimmy Carter of Georgia. Carter, as I have pointed out, enjoyed his own meteoric rise when he came from nowhere in 1976 to win the presidency. Bumpers later said he had long believed that 1976 was his best opportunity to be elected president.
Bumpers was often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, but the talk seemed to be loudest in 1980 and 1984. He declined to enter the race both times. I always thought he would have been successful because he had qualities that served Ronald Reagan so well — that sunny disposition I mentioned and remarkable oratorical skills. On a few occasions as a reporter, I covered Bumpers speaking at Labor Day Fish Fries and Chamber of Commerce luncheons in Arkansas, and I always marveled at his speaking style. It was so engaging, so folksy.
He had a real knack for connecting with people, regardless of their political philosophies. It is why in these last couple of days since his death, both Democrats and Republicans in Arkansas have been speaking highly of Bumpers and his ability to reach across the aisle.
Of course, the political landscape in Arkansas has changed considerably since Bumpers was governor. In those days, reaching across the aisle wasn't really the issue. Democrats held nearly every seat in the state legislature, but Bumpers still had to build a consensus on most issues. The legislature had conservative Democrats, liberal Democrats and moderate Democrats. It was the same challenge that Bumpers' Democratic successors, David Pryor (who followed Bumpers to the Senate four years later) and Bill Clinton, faced as governor.
All three understood that it is necessary for each side to give a little, to compromise if great things are to be accomplished. They may not be quite as great as each side envisioned, but they will be better than doing nothing.
Arkansas was fortunate to be governed by such men in times of tremendous change — and doing nothing was not an option.