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Roles Blend in an Hour of Drama

Bumpers Former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers closes the defense arguments in the Senate impeachment trial Thursday. (C-SPAN)

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 22, 1999; Page A1

    This was just the way Hollywood would do it:

    After more than a week of lawyerly tedium, here was Dale L. Bumpers, a former senator direct from Central Casting, with Lincolnesque features and enviable gray hair. Straight as a ramrod despite 73 years, his voice a deep Ozarks blend of honey and tang, like a good barbecue sauce.

    Having given 24 years of service, he'd recently stepped gracefully into retirement. But now, fearing for the Republic as he concluded the opening statements in the president's defense against Articles of Impeachment, he was back to implore his colleagues the "friends and honorable men" of the Senate to stop.

    The Bumpers speech was easily the most dramatic moment so far in the Senate impeachment trial. Blending American archetypes the country lawyer, the Senate orator, the courtroom cliffhanger he switched the channel from C-SPAN to American Movie Classics. It was "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" meets "Inherit the Wind" with a beautifully aged Atticus Finch in the starring role.

    He told jokes. He came close to tears. He went after the opposing lawyers with a warm smile and a cold shiv. He extolled the Constitution, honored his father and mother, reminisced about coon dinners and spoke a few words in well-pronounced French.

    But perhaps the most important role he played was the least cinematic. The voice of caution. Bumpers appealed to the 100 senators who will decide the president's fate in a way that only a retired colleague could do. He who is no longer compiling a legacy but only waiting and hoping to fare well in history's judgment warned them that they are on "dangerous" ground.

    "Colleagues, this is easily the most important vote you will ever cast," he said. And: "If you vote to convict, you can't be sure what's going to happen."

    There was drama even in the subtext of his appearance. Dale Bumpers was never an obvious choice to do battle for Bill Clinton. True, he told a few stories yesterday of his close friendship with the president. There was the time they were riding to a political event in a twin-engine plane that crashed on landing. They "jumped out and ran away unscathed to the dismay of every budding politician in Arkansas," he joked.

    But Clinton was never close to Bumpers the way he was close to the third Democrat in the trio of Arkansas-governors-made-good, former senator David Pryor. Bumpers perceived Clinton as a rival in fact, there were rumors in the mid-1980s that Clinton was thinking about challenging Bumpers in the 1986 election.

    Also: When Dale Bumpers imagined an Arkansas governor in the White House, that governor was named Dale Bumpers.

    It wasn't friendship that inspired him to speak, however. "It is the weight of history on all of us and it is my reverence for that great document you heard me rail about it for 24 years that we call our Constitution, the most sacred document to me next to the Holy Bible."

    And so he pulled out every stop. He attacked the Starr investigation. He praised the war heroes of the Senate. He preached compassion for the humiliated president. He played the Chelsea card.

    "Why would he [lie]?" Bumpers asked. "Well, he knew this whole affair was about to bring unspeakable embarrassment and humiliation on himself, his wife whom he adored, and a child that he worshiped with every fiber in his body and for whom he would happily have died to spare her this or to ameliorate her shame and her grief."

    He was the fifth lawyer to speak for Clinton over three days. David Kendall, the president's private attorney, opened the day with a presentation even he called "tedious," in which he proved that the defense could indeed debate the facts until your eyes glazed over. In the break between speakers, old friends from both sides of the aisle trooped forward to shake Bumpers's hand and share a laugh.

    Then, with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his gray pin-striped suit, he began: "Mr. Chief Justice, distinguished House managers from the House of Representatives, colleagues I have seen the look of disappointment on many faces because I know a lot of people thought you were rid of me once and for all."

    He comes by the country-lawyer bit honestly. Born and reared in the little town of Charleston, Ark., near the Oklahoma border, the son of a hardware store owner, Bumpers went north to Chicago for his law degree but then came straight home. He practiced every sort of law, addressed hundreds of juries, ranched cattle in his spare time.

    In 1970, he sold the cattle herd for $95,000, used the money for television ads and on his good looks and charm was elected governor. He had two triumphal terms, governing progressively and making few enemies. "He could veto your bill and make you like it," said one state legislator.

    He brought the style, but not the effectiveness, to Washington, one of the generation of young Democrats swept into office in the hangover of Watergate and Vietnam. Over the years, he crusaded for such doomed causes as mandatory gasoline rationing and higher fees for grazing and mining on public lands. Colleagues may have admired his speeches, but they didn't necessarily give him their votes.

    And he surely knows this. Surely he could see that the homespun and the humor that played so well in the galleries and on television were provoking few smiles and fewer laughs among his target audience the 55 Senate Republicans. They sat somber-faced.

    For them, he had steelier stuff. Posterity.

    Near the end of his 56-minute speech, Bumpers quoted another man they could all relate to: the 19th-century senator and would-be president James G. Blaine, who voted in 1868 to convict and remove the only other president to be impeached, Andrew Johnson. Blaine's side fell short by just one vote.

    "Twenty years later he recanted," Bumpers told them. Blaine considered the "chaos and confusion" that might have been unleashed. "And he said: 'I made a bad mistake.'"

    The rest may have been for the cameras. That was aimed right at 100 hearts.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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