Bumpers Details a Life of Triumph and Adversity in Memoir

Posted February 25, 2003 at 1:12pm

When it comes to unlikely Arkansas success stories, former Sen. and Gov. Dale Bumpers (D) ranks right up there with Wal-Mart, Tyson Chicken and a certain boy from Hope.

Indeed, a lot has changed for the four-term Senator since the days when he held the distinction of being “The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town,” as the title of his new memoir cleverly boasts.

For starters, Bumpers is currently “of counsel” for Arent Fox in Washington, D.C., a town where attorneys are about as common as mud. Still, his tale of how a country boy from Charleston, Ark., grew up to take on and triumph over much of the Natural State political establishment, besting both a Rockefeller and the redoubtable Sen. J. William Fulbright (D) in the process, makes for a compelling read.

“Most of us who achieve any degree of success, we do it because we either got some government help, we had a lot of luck or … we chose our parents well, and with me it was all three,” Bumpers chuckled.

Bumpers’ quixotic journey from an 851-person strong Western Arkansas hamlet to Washington’s power corridors began at what he still refers to as “the defining moment of my life” — a Depression-era political rally for Franklin Delano Roosevelt that Bumpers attended with his father and brother in the summer of 1938.

Initially, the young Bumpers followed a course upon which many of his generation would embark.

There was the stint in the Marine Corps during World War II, his romance with high school sweetheart Betty Flanagan, and then thanks in part to the G.I. Bill, studied at the University of Arkansas (during which time he befriended writer Norman Mailer), and later law school at Northwestern University in the Windy City (where he rubbed shoulders at the Chicago Sunday Evening Club with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr).

Tragedy struck Bumpers early. While still a law student, his parents were killed by a drunken driver. Upon graduation, he struggled to make ends meet, forgoing the $20 cost of his juris doctor diploma and returning to his hometown of Charleston to set up shop as “the entire South Franklin County, Arkansas, Bar Association.”

While Bumpers toiled for years as a “country lawyer” trying hundreds of divorce cases and running his father’s hardware, furniture and appliance store, he never lost his passion for politics.

His initial foray into Razorback politics ended with a failed bid in 1962 for the Arkansas House of Representatives. On a subsequent try, in 1970, he aimed a bit higher, this time setting his sights on the governor’s mansion.

After pulling off a dark-horse victory in the Democratic runoff over entrenched political heavyweight former Gov. Orval Faubus, Bumpers went on to top transplanted Standard Oil heir Winthrop Rockefeller, the first Republican since Reconstruction to hold that post.

A mere four years later, the upstart politician would go on to deny Arkansas’ “seniorist junior Senator” — as Fulbright once christened himself — a sixth term, and in the process, eliminated one of the chamber’s most storied figures.

Despite Bumpers’ avowed devotion to the Senate, surprisingly few of the book’s 293 pages are devoted to his tenure in that body. This, he says, was in keeping with aims not “to write a public policy book.”

Asked about the reasons behind his 1998 departure from the Senate, Bumpers is hesitant to elaborate on his decision.

“I’m reluctant to talk about that phase of it for the simple reason I don’t want to say anything that denigrates an awful lot of good men and women,” he asserted.

Less than three weeks after walking away from the world’s most exclusive club, Bumpers returned, this time to deliver the defense’s closing argument for his friend and fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton during the president’s impeachment trial in January 1999. (The two go way back, having survived an airplane crash together in the late 1980s.)

“The issue was whether that particular character flaw at that moment was something that the framers of the Constitution had in mind for impeaching the president, and the answer was clearly no and that was really the thrust of my argument to the Senate,” Bumpers explained, noting that his earlier exposure to Niebhur influenced his views toward what was the proper reaction to the president’s sexual improprieties.

“It’s not that [Niebhur] was liberal in his allowances for sin. It was a very simple Christian principle that none of us are perfect.”

Since his well-received stem-winder on the Senate floor (reprinted in full as an appendix to the book), Bumpers — who now divides his time between Little Rock and the nation’s capital — has had some time to reflect on the intervening years since his political awakening at the feet of the 32nd president more than 60-some years ago.

“When my father and I … were driving home from having seen Franklin Roosevelt, that was the day I committed to myself that I was going to be president some day.

“It’s a late thing with me. It’s just something that’s happened in the last two or three years. … It’s a childish thing to even talk about that because I was 12 years old at the time … [But] I felt that I sort of betrayed myself as well as my father in not having at least made the effort,” said Bumpers, who contemplated a bid for the presidency on three separate occasions during his Senate career but never formally declared his candidacy.

“I’ve begun to lament it more than I ever thought I would,” the 77-year-old concluded.

Bumpers will be on hand to sign books at 7 p.m. March 12 at Politics and Prose and at B. Dalton bookstore in Union Station at noon on March 28.