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'Reluctant' Bumpers Sought to Unite Democrats

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 25, 1999; Page A12

    The first time President Clinton asked him to come to his rescue, Dale Bumpers told him he had the wrong man for the job. The last time the president called, Bumpers told him he would have to sleep on it.

    Then the just-retired senator plopped himself into his recliner in his suburban Maryland home and spent several hours last Monday night jotting down thoughts. The result was the foundation for the speech he would deliver on the Senate floor three days later urging his former colleagues now sitting as jurors in the president's impeachment trial to forgive Clinton's "terrible moral lapse" and put an "end to this nightmare."

    "I was very reluctant to do it," Bumpers said in an interview yesterday, his first since his decision to join the White House defense team last week. Not only did he not have time to immerse himself in all the details of the case, but he also worried that as a fellow Arkansas Democrat, he would not be the most effective advocate for the president.

    "I told him the first time he called that one of the reasons I didn't think I was the right person is . . . everybody knows we're from the same state, everybody knows we've been friends for 25 years. I didn't think it would carry much weight," Bumpers said. Clinton disagreed and prevailed on him to think it over more. "He never insisted that I do it."

    In the end, the last-minute gambit to bring Bumpers aboard provided a rhetorical punch that the president's three-day defense in the trial otherwise lacked. Just three weeks after retiring, Bumpers delivered a sometimes folksy, sometimes fiery 56-minute peroration that had senators laughing and almost crying. Many Democrats later credited it as an effective rallying cry for their side.

    That, he said yesterday, was the point. He did not really expect to win over Republicans. But a united Democratic caucus would prevent the two-thirds vote needed for conviction. "We hoped to fortify some Democrats and help Daschle in keeping everybody in line," he said, referring to Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). "It turned out to be much more effective than I thought."

    As for perhaps the most intriguing part of his speech, Bumpers professed no inside knowledge yesterday. On the floor, he appealed to senators to sympathize with the first family's trauma, saying Clinton's relationship with his wife and daughter "has been incredibly strained, if not destroyed."

    Since saying that, Bumpers said, people have called to ask if the president or Hillary Rodham Clinton had told him that. "The answer to that is categorically no," he said. "I'm sorry that people took that literally. What I was trying to point out was that any family would be decimated. . . . It had to be a terribly traumatic thing for the entire family. That's all I was trying to imply."

    Asked how they were getting along, Bumpers said, "Just based on my observation, I think they're coping pretty well."

    Bumpers, 73, who was a governor in Arkansas before Clinton and spent the last 24 years in the Senate, has been an informal adviser to Clinton through his impeachment battle. He tried to persuade some House Republicans not to vote to impeach the president for perjury and obstruction of justice connected to efforts to hide his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. And he has opposed the idea of censure, seeing it as an "extremely dangerous" precedent.

    But he was not approached about formally joining the defense team until eight days ago, when he got a call from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) suggesting that he should close out opening arguments for the White House. The next day, last Monday, Clinton himself called, and they talked two or three times that day. Former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) was mentioned for the task, but Clinton said he did not think Mitchell would do it.

    Only after scribbling his first draft did Bumpers decide, calling deputy White House counsel Bruce R. Lindsey to accept on Tuesday morning, just hours before Clinton's team began its Senate presentation.

    He has not been back to the floor since his speech and assumes he has completed his part. But some White House aides said yesterday that they may approach him to deliver closing arguments. "If the president . . . thought I would be helpful," he said, "I would answer the call."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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