Family, friends and colleagues of former Arkansas Governor and Senator Dale Bumpers gathered for a memorial service Sunday. The service was held at downtown Little Rock’s First United Methodist Church. Former President and Governor Bill Clinton, former U.S. Senator and Governor David Pryor and veteran journalist Ernie Dumas eulogized Bumpers. He died on New Year’s Day at the age of 90.
An online webstream of the ceremony appeared to show a packed sanctuary. Numerous current and former US Senators were said to have attended, as well as Governor Asa Hutchinson and former Governor Mike Huckabee. The service was led by Rev. David Freeman. Brief remarks were also given by Bumpers' son, Brent.
Dumas, who has covered Arkansas politics since the early 60’s as a reporter and columnist, took the podium to describe what political pundits once called the “Dale Bumpers” phenomenon.
“That meant someone who is completely unknown, untestest, underfinanced, politically unconnected, and came out of oblivion to beat all the giants,” Dumas said.
Giants like Winthrop Rockefeller and Orval Faubus, who Bumpers beat in the 1970 gubernatorial election, having had no previous experience running for statewide office. In 1974 he beat veteran US Senator William Fulbright, who at the time was one of the longest-serving in the Senate. Bumpers won, Dumas said, with a charisma that combined honesty and respect for his opponents.
“He never ran a negative ad. He never uttered a word of criticism of any of his opponents,” Dumas recounted. "You remember the line that he repeated so often: 'My daddy taught me that politics is a noble profession.”
One critic famously characterized the Bumpers style as nothing but “a shoeshine and a smile,” Dumas noted. But as Governor, Bumpers forbid anyone in his administration from receiving outside gifts. Voters respected his forthright manner, Dumas said.
“You expected him to do the right thing and he did it,” Dumas said.
Doing the right thing may now be evidenced in his role ushering in school integration in his hometown of Charleston, Arkansas when he has still “a one lawyer in a one-lawyer town” in 1954. The community and its school district was the first of the former Confederacy to comply with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
Longtime US Senate colleague David Pryor attributed Bumpers’ various successes to his much-celebrated oratorical skills.
“He believed that every speech should be a performance,” Prior said. “He used logic and he used the power of words to make people think.”
Former President Clinton honed in on one of Bumpers’ most enduring legacies in his four years as Governor: convincing three-fourths of the legislature to pass an income tax increase.
“The tax increases that he passed with 75 percent of the legislature seems inconceivable today,” Clinton said. “But you have to realize, in the 1970's, all across the South, we wanted to modernize, we wanted to catch up. We knew we had to improve education. We knew we had to diversify our economies.”
The new revenue allowed for raising teacher pay, establishing public kindergartens and providing free textbooks in schools and expanding other state services while nearly doubling state coffers in the 1970’s. Clinton credited the tax increases with assisting the policy achievements of later Governors.
Bumpers is probably best known nationally for his near-hour long closing defense in the 1999 Senate impeachment trial of the nation’s 42nd chief executive. Of that, Clinton said Bumpers did it as a matter of principle and not personal favor.
“He said, 'I would have declined the invitation to speak here to defend [Clinton]. I came to defend the Constitution, a document more precious to me than any but the holy Bible,” Clinton recalled of Bumper's speech.
Clinton said Bumpers’ speech on the Senate floor also exemplified his trademark of using humor to impart information. But more than anything, Clinton said, Bumpers had a knack for lifting people up.
“Yeah, he was a great Governor. He was a great Senator. He was the finest orator of his day. But the most important thing he did, was to make things better and make people feel bigger,” Clinton said.
Another memorial service was set for Monday in Bumpers' hometown of Charleston.