Betty Bumpers was in her husband's Dirksen Building Senate office Friday night, listening to the Senate over the public address system, when Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) rose to tell colleagues that the peace group she founded last winter is "guided" by four groups controlled by or associated with communists.
"I was surprised, shocked and bewildered," the 57-year-old wife of Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) said this week. "Even though he kept saying on the floor he did not attack me, the very idea that he would bring up that I would be associated with something that questioned my loyalty to this country is absolutely ridiculous."
Last winter Betty Bumpers founded "Peace Links -- Woman Against Nuclear War," an umbrella organization to help publicize the threat of nuclear war and the arms race and to solicit peaceful alternatives.
In so doing, she may have unwittingly guaranteed herself a place in the history books. A spokesman for the Senate Historical Office could not recall another instance in which the cause of a Senate wife became the subject of a major floor debate.
That debate erupted when Sen. Bumpers proposed a resolution to designate Oct. 10 "National Peace Day." Though the status of that resolution remained unresolved, Peace Links has scheduled a "Peaceday Festival" in Washington and in several Arkansas communities.
Sen. Bumpers, in rebutting Denton on the Senate floor, likened the Alabaman's attack to those "guilt-by-association" days of McCarthyism. Still, Betty Bumpers said the attack may have been the best thing that could have happened to Peace Links. It gave the group the public exposure it needed over an issue that has aroused heated passions across the country.
"Who would have thought that I had to get State Department clearance?" said Bumpers, referring to Denton's charges that four of the 14 organizations represented on Peace Links' advisory board have communist connections. In recruiting its members, she said, "peace" was the operative word as well as a consideration of how effective each organization's literature was judged to be.
"Senator Denton acts like he's the only patriotic one," said Bumpers during an interview in Peace Links' Eighth Street SE converted apartment, which the group rented and moved into last week. "He was a prisoner of war, and maybe that colored his thinking in a way he can't be too rational about, but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't be . . . I am not questioning his sincerity or patriotism by saying I disagree with him. I don't think people in this country are going to be intimidated by that kind of stuff anymore. It's not timely, because we say we have got to stop and take a look at this, that we want in on the debate about our future."
Teresa Heinz, wife of Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and also active in Peace Links, said that though Denton did not question their motives in his floor speech, he probably thought the group could be "used" by subversives.
"I know there is a mentality out there that if you think in terms of peace, you weaken your position," she said yesterday. "It's true that I don't have all the facts now, but I do have the capability of informing myself. God knows, we have a lot of people in the Cabinet who have absolutely no expertise in the issue. If they can do on-the-job training, we can learn, too."
Jane Midgley, legislative representative for the 67-year-old Women's International League for Peace & Freedom, one of the four groups Denton singled out, said she was contacted by Bumpers last spring when Peace Links was being put together.
"We talked about her interest. I told her about our activities. She asked if we would like to participate, so we made our literature available to her for review," Midgley said yesterday.
Bumpers said there is no formal membership -- "anyone can be an adviser to us" -- and that because Peace Links has no literature of its own, it serves as a funnel to circulate the material published by other groups.
"We simply listed a group of people whose materials we had picked up and thought effective in awareness-raising," said Bumpers.
Another group now paticipating in Peace Links, Women Strike for Peace, put out a poster that Bumpers found particularly effective, but it was months before she located someone associated with it, she said. Denton included it in his quartet of offending organizations.
Most of Betty Bumpers' Peace Links associates, however, are friends. They include such other Senate wives as Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, Barbara Levin of Michigan and Barbara Eagleton of Missouri; governors' wives such as Dorothy Lamm of Colorado and Sharon Percy Rockefeller of West Virginia, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter.
A former schoolteacher who has memories of the "duck and cover stuff" of the 1950s, Bumpers said she tried to alleviate her third-graders' fear of war by pretending that the drills she was leading them in were for tornados, because that was what the children were familiar with. It never sat well with her. Even then, she said, she knew something was wrong, but she never spoke out, never questioned.
"I think we've all been kind of programmed to trust our government that way," she said. "Part of our life style is that we do trust our government and our leadership."
As first lady of Arkansas, Betty Bumpers organized an immunization drive in the 1970s. She was always a "concerned citizen, always a participant . . . I've always tried to do something that was not partisan."
Two years ago she decided she needed to know more about the arms race and where it was heading. She started to educate herself. Her husband, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations and Senate Energy and Natural Resources committees, thought she was "a little over-anxious, like most mothers are," but he did nothing to dissuade her.
Last winter she went back to Arkansas, enlisted 35 of the state's "most prestigious" women to help and on March 2 held an organizational meeting. Nobody was trying to give them any solutions or make any suggestions, she told them; the only goal was to raise their consciousness about the threats of nuclear war and try to urge world leaders to seek alternatives.
"I've never tried to make it an issue," she said this week. "It's just that this administration is trying to escalate the arms race, and that is alarming."
Once the effort in Arkansas was under way, with Peace Links in 12 counties, Bumpers turned her attention to other states. In Washington, she, Teresa Heinz and several other wives invited Senate wives to meet Australian Helen Caldicott and view "The Last Epidemic," a film produced by Physicians for Social Responsibility.
"It was across the spectrum, and 55 of them came. I was very surprised," said Heinz, at whose Georgetown home the event was held.
Betty Bumpers said she is "just one voice in a great big choir." But she feels that women with high visibility, such as herself, have an advantage and should use it responsibly.
"But they weren't defending me when so many of them jumped up in the Senate. I think they would have defended John Doe the same way," said Bumpers.
She said Peace Links isn't "that big a deal yet," but the charges have brought her into the spotlight. "I don't feel I have to be defensive about it. The accusations are silly and unfounded, and I'm not going to let them daunt me one bit, or let somebody like Denton intimidate me. I don't have to crawl into a hole."