THE BEST LAWYER IN A ONE-LAWYER TOWN

A Memoir

By Dale Bumpers

Random House. 293 pp. $24.95

The one-lawyer town to which Dale Bumpers refers in the title of his memoir is Charleston, a hamlet in Arkansas about 150 miles west-northwest of Little Rock. It had fewer than 1,000 residents when Bumpers was a boy there in the 1930s, and it has barely twice that now. Bumpers no longer is one of them. After serving four terms in the United States Senate, he left that distinguished body four years ago and now is "of counsel" at a prominent Washington law firm, presumably raking in rather more than he did in the early 1950s, when he hung out the proverbial shingle and instantly "became the entire South Franklin County, Arkansas, Bar Association."

You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy -- unless the boy happens to have been a United States senator, in which case you can. This was true somewhat notoriously of J. William Fulbright, whose five-term Senate career Bumpers ended in 1974. Fulbright was far more interested in matters international than in matters Arkansan, to the extent that he deigned to visit his constituents "only five or six times" a year, and was far more at ease in a Georgetown salon than in an Ozarks general store. It seems to be true as well of Bumpers, who has traded in his clodhoppers for Guccis and now can be reached in the Connecticut Avenue offices of Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn, where he provides "strategic counsel and advice to corporate, trade association, non-profit and organizational clients on a broad range of international and government relations issues," words that scarcely require interpretation here in Lobbyville, USA.

All of which is offered as the grain of salt that the reader must consume before cracking the covers of The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town. Bumpers made a very successful political career out of passing himself off as a small-town Mr. Deeds -- that "Bumpers" sounds a whole lot like "bumpkin" probably didn't hurt -- and he plays the same tune through most of this memoir, but he's a whole lot smarter, a whole lot slicker and a whole lot more sophisticated than the image would have us believe. He may be a country boy, but he ain't no rube.

He grew up amid the poverty of the Depression, and clearly that had a great influence on the convictions he brought to politics, but he wasn't exactly impoverished himself. His father was co-owner of the Charleston Hardware and Funeral Home -- "Almost all small-town hardware stores had a funeral home, too, a carryover from the days when the casket was built in the store" -- and the five members of the Bumpers family were more than adequately fed, clothed and housed, though even the simplest luxuries were rare. His parents' marriage doesn't seem to have overflowed with happiness -- to this day Bumpers finds it "a complete mystery" -- but they loved their children well.

Dale, their youngest child, was born in 1925. His boyhood was unremarkable except that his father, whom he worshiped, was "badly smitten with politics" and passed the condition along to his son: "Dad never lost his enthusiasm for the political chase. He never wavered in the honest conviction that there was nothing as exhilarating as a political victory and nothing as rewarding or as honorable as being a dedicated, honest politician who actually made things better and more just." A few years after World War II, while Bumpers was at Northwestern Law School, both of his parents were killed in an auto collision with "an oncoming car with a roaring drunk man at the wheel." The effects of this loss on him were deep and lasting; surely it had something to do with his decision to enter politics, a way of honoring his father.

His first race was for the Arkansas House of Representatives, in 1962. He lost, but he says it "was not a total waste" because "I learned a lot about the pervasiveness of poverty and ignorance, how manipulative people can be, and, most important, that many people don't have a prayer from the day they crawl out of their mother's womb." Gradually he built a steady law practice, bought a 210-acre cattle farm and, in 1970, decided to take another whack at politics. It was one hell of a whack. Coming almost literally from out of nowhere, he won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1970 and then easily defeated the incumbent, Winthrop Rockefeller, whose somewhat improbable popularity had long since faded. He entered office in a state of sublime ignorance -- "the dog that caught the car knew a lot more about what to do with the car than I knew about what to do with the governor's office" -- but he learned fast and had two rather successful terms. He never liked the job, though, because "I spent more time trying to make sure bad things didn't happen than I spent trying to make good things happen," so when polls showed that Fulbright could be beaten in 1974, Bumpers took on the job.

Bumpers's account of the ensuing two and a half decades he spent in the Senate is mercifully brief and of only marginal interest. Indeed, he devotes more space to the speech he delivered before the Senate a few weeks after leaving it, when at the request of his fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton he defended the president during impeachment proceedings. He reprints that 58-minute speech in full as an appendix, obviously because he's proud of it, but the bet here is that most readers will feel, as I do, that it's a peculiar note on which to bring this memoir to an end.

It also leaves one wondering why, precisely, this book was written at all. There is every reason to believe that Bumpers is a decent and honorable man, at least by the standards of the United States Senate and Lobbyville, USA, but it's hard to imagine that his story will interest many readers outside Arkansas, and it probably won't interest many readers there, either. By contrast with the other senatorial memoir to cross this desk within recent months, Bob Kerrey's When I Was a Young Man, this one has no dramatic stories to tell and raises no complex moral or ethical issues. Apart from the shock of his parents' deaths and a few financial difficulties early in his working life, Bumpers has traveled a smooth, upward path. He could have made his story considerably more interesting had he ended it with a discussion of his decision not to return to Arkansas but to hang that ol' shingle at Gucci Gulch, but such matters are discussed only behind closed doors here in Lobbyville, where the unofficial motto always has been: How can you keep them down on the farm, after they've seen DC? *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

Dale Bumpers in 1970, when he was running for governor of Arkansas