The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bill Clinton’s moving eulogy for former Sen. Dale Bumpers

Former Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers arrives on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Jan. 19, 1999, for the Senate’s impeachment trial against President Clinton. Bumpers, who built a reputation as a keen orator during his 24 years in the Senate, is closing the defense arguments on behalf Clinton. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Bill Clinton gives a good eulogy. I saw the former president as the main speaker at a memorial service this past weekend for his friend, former Senator Dale Bumpers, an event attended by virtually every politician of note in Arkansas and many former and current U.S. Senators.

Clinton immediately framed Bumpers’s tenure as governor in the early 1970s in the historical context of the South. The region was tired of lagging behind the rest of the nation, and Bumpers was part of a new generation of governors that improved schools and roads, seeing these improvements as a foundation for growth. He did it by making the tax code more progressive, enabling, in Clinton’s view, a stability that continues to serve the state years later. Singling out all the former governors in the crowd, Clinton said that Bumpers legacy allowed David Pryor to weather a recession, helped his own administration further advance education, gave Mike Huckabee the means to enact health care for children and, in a little dig at the current governor, enabled, “Asa Hutchinson’s tax cut.” It was a not so subtle reminder that today’s politicians seem incapable of delayed gratification for the eventual betterment of their constituents.

He praised Dale Bumpers’s confidence and political acumen, recounting that Bumpers sought him out at a political rally when Clinton was a young man with hot political prospects. Bumpers immediately disarmed him by saying he understood Clinton couldn’t support his senate race, given that he was running against a Clinton hero, Senator William Fulbright. Before Clinton could reply, Bumpers went on to say that Clinton was right to remain loyal, and hoped that eventually he would win the young politician’s support by being a worthy replacement. Bumpers went on to say, “And one more thing, Bill; if you don’t think I am doing a good job, eventually you should run against me.” “Damn,” the former president said he thought at the time. “This guy is good.”

Yes, he was. He never lost an election, beating Fulbright, Faubus, Huckabee and Hutchinson. By 1976, Clinton was impressed enough that he urged Bumpers to run for president. Bumpers declined, telling Clinton that to run would be a breach of faith with the people of Arkansas. Bumpers, Clinton told those assembled in the Little Rock Methodist church, would have been elected president in 1976 or 1980.

Moving on to discuss the most dramatic period of his own presidency, Clinton spoke of his feelings watching his old friend and mentor as Bumpers gave the closing defense in the president’s Senate impeachment trial. It is a speech that ranks as one of the finest orations of the last 100 years and was written by his own hand on a yellow legal pad and not shared with anyone before he delivered it. Bumpers began with his trademark humor, telling a series of jokes about how the senators, who were happy to be rid of him when he retired just months before, now had to endure him once more. “Okay, Dale”, Clinton thought, “we know you’re funny.”

Next Clinton said he got even more nervous as Bumpers asked what words might describe the president’s behavior that led him to being placed on trial. “Despicable, disgusting, unforgivable…and more.” Now, Clinton said, he was really starting to sweat. But Clinton noted Bumpers quickly turned to his main argument. He hadn’t come back to the Senate to defend his old friend; he had come on behalf of the Constitution he so revered. He gave the assembled a lesson on how the Founders had evolved the standard for impeachment from personal misbehavior to misconduct toward the state, a crucial distinction in the impeachment discussion.

As the service ended, one couldn’t help but feel that it marked not only the celebration of a man, but the judgment that some of today’s politicians don’t measure up. Time after time, Bumpers put his career on the line and trusted the people, leading the very first school district in the South to integrate peacefully; to vote for the Panama Canal Treaty, when told that it was political suicide; to raise taxes and defend the Constitution when he had nothing to gain politically and a lot to lose. I was reminded of what Lyndon Johnson once told George Wallace in the oval office, trying to persuade the governor to stop resisting integration in Alabama. “Now, George,” the president asked, “what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine lying there along that hot caliche soil that says ‘George Wallace: He Hated’?” Dale Bumpers’s life was monumental and stands in contrast to the scrawny pine.

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