Wednesday, January 20, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Bumpers’ legacy (V)

(This is the last in a series of editorials on the life of former Arkansas senator and governor Dale Bumpers, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of 90.)

Dale Bumpers’ 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.

Bumpers, who passed away at the of 90 on New Year’s Day, 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.
— Ernie Dumas