Tuesday, January 05, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Bumpers’ legacy (I)

Dale Bumpers, whom a poll of historians and political scientists in 1998 ranked as Arkansas’ only great governor of the 20th century and who served for nearly a quarter of a century in the U.S. Senate, died Friday night at his home at Little Rock.

Bumpers, who was 90, fractured a hip in a fall at his home in early December. His health had declined for a year and he could not regain his equilibrium after the fall and surgery.

Although Bumpers’ magical election in 1970, when he went from small-town oblivion to triumph over two of the greatest politicians of the era, established his reputation as a giant killer and the most successful reformer in the state’s history, it was only preparation for a career in Washington that he expected to lead to the presidency. He was celebrated as the finest orator in Congress, but the presidency eluded him. Twice he made some preparation to run but he backed out each time. He ended his career a month after retiring in 1999 by making the final defense of President Clinton in his impeachment trial before the Senate. The speech was regarded as the best oration in Congress of the 20th century.

Politics and the notion of public service were Bumpers’ passion since childhood, when his father imbued in him the ideas that it was the noblest of callings and that he could be president one day and, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, perform wonders for his country. But Dale Leon Bumpers spent his early adult years practicing law, running a hardware store and raising three children in a tiny town east of Fort Smith and didn’t enter politics seriously until 1970, when at the age of 45 he suddenly ran for governor in a crowd of well-known Democratic politicians seeking to unseat Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, who was running for a third term.

Though unknown and a political naïf who had little money and no connections, Bumpers vanquished a six-term governor, the hitherto unbeatable Orval E. Faubus, and also the popular attorney general, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the former president of the Arkansas Bar Association and three other men with political experience in the Democratic primaries and then defeated Gov. Rockefeller in a landslide. An aide to Rockefeller confided that the governor had spent close to $10 million on his re-election effort. Vice President Spiro Agnew, who came to Fort Smith to campaign for Rockefeller, scoffed that Bumpers had nothing going for him but “a smile and a shoeshine.” Agnew’s description followed Bumpers for years.

The victory established Bumpers as a political giant killer. In the course of his 28-year career, he defeated four men who had served or would serve as governor—Faubus, Rockefeller, Mike Huckabee (in a 1992 Senate race) and Asa Hutchinson (in a 1986 Senate race), all by large margins, in addition to one of the state’s most distinguished and longest-serving senators, J. William Fulbright.

Two rare characteristics marked the Bumpers political phenomenon. He didn’t criticize his political opponents or run negative ads about them because his father thought such conduct was unseemly, and he followed his own, usually liberal, instincts as both governor and senator, disregarding polls or conventional wisdom about what politicians could do in a deeply conservative electorate. Votes for taxes, civil rights, unrestrained free speech and even returning the Panama Canal to Panama barely diminished his popularity.

Distressed by the growing incivility in Congress—Republican senators had been among his closest friends—Bumpers did not run again in 1998 and soon afterward moved home to Little Rock.

As governor, Bumpers pushed tax increases through the legislature and as a senator he voted against President Ronald Reagan’s big 1982 tax cut, accurately predicting that it would produce mammoth budget deficits, but he voted for Reagan’s tax increases that followed and those of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He fought constitutional amendments pushed by other Southern senators that amended the Bill of Rights to make government-sponsored prayer in the schools legal, protect flags from being used in protests and prevent busing to achieve school integration.

After his retirement in 1999, Bumpers marveled that Arkansas voters had tolerated his excursions from conservative orthodoxy and always returned him to office. He thought fund-raising was corrupting for politicians, particularly in legislative bodies, and was grateful that Arkansas voters never made him do much of it.

Although he confessed many years later that he hated every day that he was governor, those consequential four years established Bumpers’ reputation. In 1998, Dr. Cal Ledbetter and Dr. Fred Williams, the political science and history chairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, did a survey of political scientists and historians asking them to evaluate and rank all the 20th century Arkansas governors from Jeff Davis through Mike Huckabee, who was then in his first term. Bumpers emerged as the only “great” governor, owing to the raft of reforms achieved in the four years through the passage of laws and executive decisions. — Ernie Dumas