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Dale Bumpers Death Marks End of Era in Arkansas (Andrew DeMillo Analysis)

3 min read

LITTLE ROCK – Dale Bumpers’ death doesn’t just mark the end of an era in Arkansas – a time when larger-than-life Democrats like David Pryor, Bill Clinton and the former longtime senator and governor bloomed.

It is also a reminder of a not-so-distant time when voters could be won over by face-to-face politicking and impassioned speeches instead of through tweets spreading campaign rhetoric 140 characters at a time and television ads doing the same in 30-second bursts.

Bumpers, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of 90, was known as much for his ability to win over support with his stem-winders as he was for his reputation as a “giant-killer” for defeating entrenched incumbents.

He was a little-known lawyer from Charleston when he defeated former Gov. Orval Faubus for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1970, then defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the general election. Four years later he defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright in the Democratic primary and won the seat in the Senate.

That resume and his oratorical skills is why Clinton enlisted Bumpers to make the final argument at the president’s 1999 impeachment trial, when Clinton’s lies under oath about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky left his job in danger. During a 58-minute speech that helped save Clinton’s job, Bumpers argued against removing the president despite his “indefensible, outrageous, unforgivable, shameless” behavior.

In his 2003 autobiography, “The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town,” Bumpers wrote that he had given many speeches that he considered better than his defense of Clinton, “but almost always to an empty chamber and an indifferent media.”

“There were many times when I knew that if an issue could be debated to an attentive public, the outcome would be wholly different,” he wrote. “Disinterest by the press on an issue often allows politicians to cast irresponsible votes, knowing their constituents will not likely know or care and they won’t be held accountable.”

Bumpers’ death came more than a year after an election where Republicans completed a sweep in the state once known for nurturing Democratic figures like he and Pryor. During an event in Little Rock last week, Pryor said he and Bumpers became so close over the years that they could finish each other’s jokes.

“He was not only my friend. He was our friend,” Pryor said at an event last week. “He made Arkansas proud, and Dale was probably was one of the most unique political figures that I have ever known anywhere in this state.”

It’s also telling how much two of the state’s biggest Republican figures pointed to losses to Bumpers as part of their own political upbringing.

“In my first statewide race, Dale took me to school on Arkansas politics,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who lost to Bumpers in the 1986 U.S. Senate race, said in a statement following Bumpers’ death. “He was a master storyteller, and his stump speaking was impossible to beat.”

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who likewise lost to Bumpers in a 1992 Senate race, said he “first knew (Bumpers) as a political opponent and I must confess he beat me like a drum.”

After elections in recent years that have been dominated by television ads, social media wars and the rising role of outside groups, it’s hard to imagine a small-town lawyer rising as quickly as Bumpers did in the state’s politics. It’s also hard to imagine a longtime public figure like Bumpers continuing to praise politics, as he did regularly after leaving the Senate in 1999.

“It’s a place where you can do as much for your fellow man as any other place,” he said during a visit to the state Capitol in 2003. “Maybe it’s the best place.”

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/ademillo.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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