Saturday, January 02, 2016

Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), R.I.P.

"Funny as all get out and could talk an owl out of a tree," Bill Clinton said.

Former United States Senator Dale Leon Bumpers of Arkansas has died at age 90.

Senate Dale Bumpers was one of my Senate heroes as an undergraduate, and I always enjoyed watching him in U.S. Senate floor debates, in the era before C-SPAN, in the 1970s.

Senator Bumpers worked for historic preservation and environmental protection and enjoyed defiantly defeating special interests who wanted to clear-cut forests and destroy our public lands. He was an influential member of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, 1975-1999.

In 1988, Senator Bumpers' Floor amendment saved Stuart's Hill -- 542 acres near the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) battlefield -- from commercial development. Senator Bumpers' Floor amendment provided for a legislative taking, and it passed on October 7, 1988, by vote of 50-25.

With support from Virginia preservationists, the National Park Service, National Trust for Historic Preservation, former White House press secretary Jody Powell and Civil War historians, U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee National Parks and Forests Subcommittee Chair Dale Bumpers dumbfounded, bedazzled and defeated Virginia's Republican Senator John Warner (one of actress Elizabeth Taylor's husbands) in what was sometimes called "the third Battle of Manassas."

Showing his Senate colleagues maps of General Longstreet and General Lee's positions during the Second Battle of Manassas, talking about bulldozers scraping the red earth and destroying antebellum homes, noting that there were thousands of Confederate dead -- men and boys -- on land wanted for a shopping center, Senator Bumpers concluded with passion that it would be wrong to let a shopping center obliterate this history. "If you really cherish our heritage as I do, and you believe that history is really important for our children, you will vote for my amendment. I yield the floor."

Senator Bumpers' awesome, populist, well-reserached Floor amendments and knowledge of Senate procedural rules and folkways were legendary.

One of his modest quiet, erudite and scholarly staffers ended up as a federal judge -- the late Richard Arnold, who served on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals with his brother, Morris Arnold, a Republican former law professor.

One of the best debaters in the history of the United States Senate, Senator Bumpers was a former condemnation lawyer with a tart tongue and quick wit, who often dressed informally (jacket and non-matching pants) in a body then consisting of mostly men (only one woman) in pinstriped three piece suits (he could have been mistaken for a member of the sartorially more Plebeian House of Representatives in 1975). Senator Bumpers delighted in using Arkansas rural colloquialisms and numbered his points. He was not ashamed to say, "I reckon," I reckon. He never took himself or politics too seriously, and was always quick with a laugh or a quip.

Senator Bumpers often stood like "Horatio at the Bridge" with another liberal firebrand, the late Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), calling attention to some evil depredation of our natural resources or tax code. He targeted giveaway mineral leasing practices and helped cut wasteful defense and other pork barrel projects, ending both the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and the Super Conducting Super Collider in Texas. Other successful causes were global polio eradication (a project of his beloved wife, Betty) and a 1975 amendment allowing right turns on red, saving gasoline and time in the midst of an energy crisis.

While Senator Bumpers sometimes supported controversial, unsuccessful legislation allowing federal eminent domain for coal slurry pipelines (which would have benefitted Middle South Utilities) and he often voted anti-labor and was forever hated by unions for halting labor law reform in 1978, I reckon that he was a true liberal progressive populist in nearly all other respects.

Senator Bumpers was always a progressive on racial issues.  His father was a gregarious hardware store and funeral home owner, a one-term state legislator..  Dale Bumpers' father wanted Dale to be president, so Dale went to Northwestern Law school in Illinois to broaden his rural perspective.  While in law school, both of Dale Bumpers' parents were killed by a drunk driver who slammed into them on the way back to Fort Smith from a small farm they'd purchased.

Only two years out of Northwestern law school in Illinois, as a young lawyer, Dale Bumpers advised his local school board to desegregate after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 -- Charleston, Arkansas was the first school district to desegregate after Brown. Bumpers was then elected to his local school board and prevented re-segregation. When Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus appealed to racism, requiring President Eisenhower to send federal troops to desegregate Little Rock Central High School, Bumpers helped his local school janitor and otter school personnel remove racist graffiti from a school before it reopened. The Arkansas Times reported Bumpers said:

"I drove down to the school the next morning because I knew who the culprits were just as well as I knew my name, and I wanted to see the look on their faces when they realized that artwork of theirs on the side of the school building was gone," he said. "Sure enough, they came and you could just see the look of disappointment all over their faces."

The Arkansas times disclosed, "When a truckload of hooligans terrorized a black family on a road outside town one night, Bumpers drove his '54 Pontiac into the family's yard and sat with the father on the porch far into the night. When the hooligans saw Bumpers's car they stopped shouting and cursing, stopped at a distance and finally drove away."

Bumpers ran for office once, lost and proceeded to practice law and "make money."

Then, in 1970, with 1% name recognition, Dale Bumpers delighted in defeating the rebarbative racist, segregationist ex-Governor Orville Faubus and was elected Governor, defeating Winthrop Rockefeller, despite Vice President Spiro Agnew campaigning against Bumpers and saying all he had was "a smile a and a shoeshine."

Four years later, in 1974, the year I graduated high school and went to work for Senator Ted Kennedy's mailroom, Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers defeated anti-war icon J. William Fulbright (Senate Foreign Relations Chair) in the 1974 Democratic primary and was elected to the U.S. Senate.

From my own days as a freshman in college, interning for Senator Ted Kennedy, and watched Senator Bumpers from his days as a freshman Senator. I was (and still am) duly impressed.

Despite bigotry and prejudice in his rural state, Senator Dale Bumpers supported progressive issues, working with Republicans and Democrats.  His causes included both free speech and civil rights. In 1978, he voted for the Panama Canal treaty. He strongly opposed demagogic efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution over school prayer, abortion, school busing, flag-desecration and other hot button issues -- Dale Bumpers never supported any constitutional amendment.  Senator Bumpers said his legacy included "fighting like a saber-tooth tiger" against such "trivial" constitutional amendments, which he helped defeat 38 times.  There was no stronger defender of the Constitution.

The Arkansas Times reported, "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.'"

Senator Bumpers did not seek re-election in 1998 because politics had become so nasty, remembering that Mike Huckabee (now a candidate for president), called him a "pornographer" in 1992 by supporting federal grants for artists.

"Funny as all get out and could talk an owl out of a tree," Bill Clinton once said of his Arkansas colleague. I was sitting in the office of another junior Senator once as he and Bumpers discussed an issue of interest only to their states. Bumpers out-argued his colleague, who was left to say only, "Well hell, Dale!"

Senator Bumpers prophetically wrote in his diary of Bill Clinton in 1982, "I doubt that I've ever known anyone as manicly ambitious for political office, but who simply doesn't have the judgement or character to deal with it once he gets it."

Dale Bumpers' closing argument in 1999 in the Bill Clinton impeachment case, pro bono, after leaving the Senate, was an epic argument. He said Clinton's affair was immoral and shameful but that lying about it was not cause for removal from office. Bumpers said said "if anybody tells you it's not about sex, it's about sex."

Bill Clinton said, "I loved him. I loved learning from him and laughing with him. I will miss him very much."

In 2014, the 160,000 acre (250 square mile) White River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1935, was renamed in his honor, the "Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge," with 300 lakes and sloughs, mainly bottomland hardwood forest.

Dale Bumpers is the kind of honest politician we need more of in America today -- he said what he thought and meant what he said.
What do y'all reckon?

Ed Slavin

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