Tuesday, January 12, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Bumpers’ legacy (III)

Dale Bumpers, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of 90, toyed with running for governor in 1968. His father-in-law, H. E. “Babe” Flanagan, walked into his house one morning and woke him and Betty up.

“You going to run for governor?” Flanagan asked. Bumpers said he wasn’t sure. Flanagan tossed 15 $100 bills on the table, the amount of the filing fee. He told Bumpers to drive down to Little Rock and file. “I’ll mow your pasture and your meadow, too.” Bumpers had sold his hardware store and bought 44 Angus cows that Flanagan had found for sale in Tupelo, Miss.

But his friend Ted Boswell of Bryant, a trial lawyer, had announced for governor and Bumpers concluded that the two of them would split progressive votes so that neither would have a chance. Boswell was nosed out of the Democratic runoff with Marion Crank, who lost to Rockefeller. Two years later, Bumpers decided to run.

He had about $10,000 to spend on the race, owing largely to the sale of his Angus herd. Brother Carroll, an Illinois business executive, pitched in $15,000 and together they persuaded his skeptical sister, who had made a fortune at Cleveland in the vending business, to donate $20,000 to the cause.

The Democratic race featured Faubus, who had retired undefeated four years earlier and had remarried; Attorney General Joe Purcell of Benton; House Speaker Hayes C. McClerkin of Texarkana; Robert C. Compton of El Dorado, former president of the Arkansas Bar Association; Bill G. Wells of Hermitage, a former legislator and radio personality who had barely missed being elected lieutenant governor in 1968; Jim Malone of England, a catfish farmer who was regarded as a great stump speaker; a wisecracking West Memphis businessman named William S. Cheek; and Bumpers.

Rockefeller’s pollster, Eugene Newsom, had Bumpers’ name recognition as less than 1 percent, the lowest of all the candidates.

Bumpers used the $50,000 to purchase a few billboards, run some newspaper ads and buy a little television time—usually 30-second spots and sometimes longer ones where he perched on a stool without notes and talked about overcoming all the strife, bringing people together to get things done for the state, and always being honest and candid with people about where he stood. He was going to improve education, get medical care to people in rural areas, and protect the state’s air and streams. Polls shortly before the primary showed that he had climbed but was nowhere near Faubus and Purcell, the frontrunners. But he nosed out Purcell for the second spot and defeated Faubus 260,000 to 183,000 in the runoff.

Faubus had ignored Bumpers in the first primary and then characterized Bumpers as a “flaming liberal” who had supported Rockefeller in the past. He tried to make fun of Bumpers.

“The Arkansas Gazette wants to set up the same sort of gently contested race you would find for the king and queen of a charity ball at some country club,” Faubus said in a televised speech before the election. “Bumpers versus Rockefeller battling it out, tux to tux, cocktail to cocktail, boyish grin to boyish grin. No hard feelings, it’s nothing serious.”

So Bumpers joked about all the big country clubs there were in Charleston, Ark. He never denied that he had voted for Rockefeller nor did he criticize Faubus.

Rockefeller confronted the same act in the general election. He insinuated that while Bumpers may look like a fresh face he was part of the same old machine. Bumpers received 62 percent of the votes against Rockefeller and Walter Carruth, the candidate of George Wallace’s American Party.

Bumpers would later say that as a senator he missed the satisfaction that he had as governor, knowing every day when you went to work that you were not spinning your wheels but actually getting things done and making things measurably better for people. But he also made it a torturous job. In his first days in office events brought home to him that 30,000 government employees worked for him and that there was the potential every day of corruption, self-dealing and influence peddling.

He sent a new aide home for trying to influence a liquor permit and demanded the resignation of a parole official appointed by Rockefeller for seeking payoffs from prisoner families. He worried every night that his children would read about some scandal, some wrongdoing in their daddy’s government.

When a political opponent in his 1972 re-election race said Bumpers had been handed a paper sack full of hundred-dollar bills at the Buffalo, N.Y., airport from the scandal-ridden owners of the racetrack at West Memphis Bumpers despaired that people would believe he would do something like that.

He directed that all gifts of any kind that reached his office be returned with a letter explaining that he could not accept theirs or any gift. Days after taking office, he went home to the Mansion in the evening to find an expensive Rolex watch, the price tag still affixed, from a Camden businessman who wanted to be reappointed to the State Police Commission. Bumpers returned it with the letter and, of course, didn’t reappoint him. Later that year, the State Police told him that a new inmate in the penitentiary claimed that he had been hired by the businessman to kill the governor but that he had been convicted of another crime before he could get around to it. Bumpers told the State Police to warn the businessman that he would be the suspect if any harm came to the governor or his family.

Bumpers said the happiest day of his life was the first day he woke up and was not governor of Arkansas anymore and not responsible for the ethical lapses of anyone in the government. As a senator with a tiny staff he never again carried that burden. —Ernie Dumas