Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer End The Nightmare

By Jackson Baker

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  It was the summer of 1970, and I was living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, working on a graduate degree and spending a lot of time talking on the phone with a local lawyer who represented my then-estranged first wife. That she and I would reconcile (for another decade, as it turned out) was getting to be obvious, and in the middle of one of our last conversations, the lawyer dropped his full-court press long enough to ask, “Who you for for Governor?”

Honest to God, with all my preoccupations I hadn’t even thought about it. I’d even forgot it was election day. The incumbent Republican governor, Winthrop Rockefeller, was a decent if somewhat dissolute man who was plainly wearing down. Seven or eight Democrats vied in a primary for the honor of replacing him, including the odds-on favorite, former Governor Orval Faubus, a villain from the old days of segregation.

“Dale Bumpers,” I heard myself say. And I almost had to ask myself: What’d I say, who? I knew very little, after all, about Bumpers, a youngish man whom I’d seen doing some talking-head spots on TV. Nobody had heard of him before that summer, and it turned out that as recently as two years before, he’d even lost a race for his local school board in the northwest Arkansas hamlet of Charleston. According to the pollsters, he started out dead last in the field.

The Bumpers campaign was one of the first prodigies pulled off by the late Memphis PR maven DeLoss Walker. What he saw in Bumpers – an odd amalgam of honesty, strength, compassion, and mental clarity – was what we got on TV, and my subconscious mind had clearly succumbed. Nor was I alone, as the erstwhile lawyer for the other side, in his sudden solidarity and enthusiasm, made clear.

“Well, get out there and vote, man!” he said. First things first.

Bumpers the Unknown squeaked into a runoff with Faubus, then blew him away. Rockefeller fell in his turn. Four years later, Bumpers ran for the Senate and turned out J. William Fulbright, doing it, moreover, by running to the left of the iconoclastic Fulbright, guru to the anti-Vietnam movement.

The new Arkansas senator was an eloquent, eminently likeable man, with a record of support for social legislation and civil rights and civil liberties and a willingness, like that of the man he’d beat for the Senate, to go it alone if need be. In 1981, a deficit-conscious Bumpers was one of only two senators to vote for Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts but against his tax cuts. His was the only vote against the confirmation of the egregious James Watt for Secretary of the Interior. And he waged lonesome fights against the B-1 bomber, the supercollider, the space station, and the Clinch River breeder reactor in Tennessee.

By the early ’80s, when I was working in Washington for a member of the Arkansas congressional delegation, Bumpers was universally admired among his fellow Arkies – even, to a substantial degree, across party lines. He was everybody’s favorite to run for president (the state’s ambitious young governor, name of Bill Clinton, was a distant second), and when, in early, 1983, Bumpers took himself out of the running, he broke a lot of hearts – including not a few among his colleagues in the Senate, where he was collegially beloved in the same way that Republican Bob Dole was.

His wife Betty’s chronic heart condition was, it became known, the major reason why Bumpers had opted out for 1984, leaving the Democratic field to the likes of Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. (In 1975, Bumpers had mused – like another recent reform governor from the South, one Jimmy Carter – on an earlier presidential run.)

Skip to last week when Dale Bumpers – retired now, having chosen not to run for reelection in 1998 – was beseeched by an impeached president to make the climactic speech on his behalf before the U.S. Senate.

Speaking from the well of the body he had so recently been a member of, Bumpers let Clinton have it: The president’s conduct had been “indefensible, outrageous, unforgivable, shameless,” and a horrific shame for his wife and child. But: “We are none of us perfect. Sure, you say, he should have thought it all out beforehand, and indeed he should, just as Adam and Eve should have. Just as you and you and you and you and millions of other people who have been caught in similar circumstances should have thought of it before.”

Bumpers recalled how he and Clinton had worked together politically. “We tried to provide health care for the lesser among us, for those who are well off enough they can’t get on welfare but not making enough to buy health insurance. We have fought above everything else to improve the educational standards for a state that for so many years was at the bottom of the list or near the bottom of the list of income. And we have stood side by side to save beautiful pristine areas in our state from environmental degradation.”

But “Bill Clinton the man, Bill Clinton the friend” was “not the issue here,” Bumpers told his former colleagues. It was the preservation of the “unique mix of democracy and republican government” that was ordained by the American Constitution – the same Constitution that Bumpers had undertaken to defend by being the point man in every Senate debate about what he saw as frivolous or dangerous attempts to amend it. Whether they came from the right or the left, Bumpers had opposed them all.

Unlike all the other special pleaders on both sides, Bumpers cut to the chase on one of the main issues of the impeachment drama. “[W]here did “high crimes and misdemeanors” come from?” he asked rhetorically, and then explained. “It came from the English law, and they [the framers of the Constitution] found it in English law under a category which said ‘distinctly political offences against the State.’”

That, to Bumpers’ mind, clearly made the current prosecution inappropriate and rendered it a “political offence” itself. Bumpers spoke of a judicial system “out of kilter” and of “the human element,” of “the innocent people, innocent people, who have been financially and mentally bankrupt” because of the endless ongoing vendetta. “Javert’s pursuit of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables pales by comparison,” he said of the events set in motion by independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s $50 million investigation and its partisan congressional follow-up.

Though his remarks throughout were measured and civil, Bumpers could not avoid scorn upon occasion, as when he cited the House Judiciary Committee’s conclusion about a carved marble bear given to Monica Lewinsky by the president. “‘The only logical inference is that the gifts, including the bear, symbolizing strength, were a tacit reminder to Ms. Lewinsky that they would deny the relationship, even in the face of a federal subpoena,’” he quoted, and the patent absurdity of that spoke for itself.

Bumpers was hard on both the president and his critics for undermining the presidency, but he quoted such foreign leaders as Vaclav Havel, King Hussein, and Nelson Mandela to the effect that American prestige and that of its president abroad had never been higher.

He put the oft-cited polls supporting Clinton in context: “The American people now and for some time have been asking to be allowed a good night’s sleep. They’re asking for an end to this nightmare. It is a legitimate request.… So don’t, for God’s sakes, heighten people’s alienation that is at an all-time high toward their government. The people have a right, and they are calling on you to rise above politics, rise above partisanship.”

As for Clinton, “if you vote to convict, in my opinion, you’re going to be creating more havoc than he could ever possibly create. After all, he’s only got two years left.”

As mildly as he could, Bumpers had reproached those Republicans – specifically Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde – who had drawn a straight line from the service of American fighting men in past wars to the need for convicting the current president. This was “wanting to win too badly,” said Bumpers, who then cited the absent Dole and such warrior heroes among his auditors as Senators Daniel Inouye, Bob Kerrey, John McCain, and John Chafee.

Was the point of their sacrifices merely that one side or the other might win the current political showdown? “You don’t have to guess,” said Bumpers, himself a Marine veteran of World War II. “They’re with us, and they’re living. And they can tell you.”

Betty Bumpers, the same Betty Bumpers whose health had been so major a factor in her husband’s decision not to run for the presidency himself, had also figured importantly in his remarks, as when he recalled himself as a young Marine-to-be, awaiting a pre-induction bus to Little Rock, at 2 a.m. of a freezing winter morning: “And the bus came over the hill – I was rather frightened anyway about going, and I was quite sure I was going to be killed, only slightly less frightened that Betty would find somebody else while I was gone. And the bus came over School House Hill, and my parents started crying.”

Dale Bumpers wasn’t killed, however, and Betty Bumpers didn’t find (presumably didn’t look for) anyone better.

Nor did the “Conventional Wisdom” box in last week’s Newsweek, which, after surveying the whole impeachment-saga field, gave Bumpers one of its few “up” arrows, with the comment: “Finally, a politician the CW can truly admire. Naturally, he’s retired.”

If the actions of the U.S. Senate this week and next should result in Bill Clinton’s political survival, he will surely have Dale Bumpers to thank for coming unretired for a single day last week before a jury of his – and not the president’s – peers. Cicero himself couldn’t have done any better.

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