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Former Sen. Dale Bumpers Dies at 90

Visitor Center20(DG)062000 -- Former Members Vic Fazio and Dale Bumpers during the U.S. Capitol Ground Breaking Ceremony.
Bumpers, left, is shown here in 2000 with former Rep. Vic Fazio during the groundbreaking ceremony for the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Dale Bumpers, a reformist governor in Arkansas and four-term U.S. senator well known for his wit and oratorical skills as well as his passionate defense of President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial, has died at the age of 90, his family said.

In an email to the Arkansas Times on Saturday, Bumpers’ family said:

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our father and husband, Senator Dale Bumpers. He passed away Friday night, January 1, in his home surrounded by our family. We want to thank his many friends and colleagues who have supported him and us over the years. While most people knew him as a great governor, senator and public servant, we remember him best as a loving father and husband who gave us unconditional love and support and whose life provided wonderful guidance on how to be a compassionate and productive person.”

Senate Leaders Remember Dale Bumpers

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Bumpers went from a small-town law practice to the governor’s mansion in 1971. He beat segregationist former Gov. Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary and defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the general election.

His only political experience before then was a seat on the Charleston, Ark., school board, for which he had run to keep the public schools there from re-segregating.

Rockefeller used the phrase “a smile and a haircut” to describe his opponent but it was sophisticated TV advertising that propelled Bumpers to Little Rock.

As governor, Bumpers raised the income tax to increase teacher salaries and reorganized state government to reduce the number of agencies reporting to the governor and cut down on cronyism.

He created a state-supported kindergarten program, provided free textbooks to students, commenced major construction programs at the state’s colleges and increased state payments for operational costs at community colleges, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He instituted a consumer protection division in the state attorney general’s office, expanded state parks, built prisons, and improved social services for the elderly and disabled.

In his race for the Senate four years later, Bumpers defeated incumbent William J. Fulbright in the Democratic primary by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

7-21-98.FY99 APPROPRIATIONS--Dale Bumpers,D-Ark.,during the Senate Foreign Operations mark up..CONGERESSIONAL QUARTERLY PHOTO BY DOUGLAS GRAHAM
Bumpers listens during the markup for foreign operations funding in 1998. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Bumpers was best known in the Senate for his oratory, which he used in a passionate closing argument for Clinton in his impeachment trial on charges of lying under oath about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.

Bumpers argued that the president had “suffered a terrible moral lapse, a marital infidelity. Not a breach of the public trust, not a crime against society.”

He quoted the H.L Mencken line, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about the money,’ it’s about the money … And when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex,’ it’s about sex.’ “

“The American people are now and for some time have been asking to be allowed a good night’s sleep,” he argued. “They’re asking for an end to this nightmare. It is a legitimate request.”

BETHESDA, UNITED STATES:  US President Bill Clinton (L) laughs with former US Senator Dale Bumpers(D-AR) during the National Institutes of Health dedication ceremony of the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research center 09 June 1999 in Bethesda, MD.  After the ceremony, Clinton said he was pleased to hear about the agreement reached  between NATO and Serbian military officials. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO Joyce NALTCHAYAN (Photo credit should read JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Clinton laughs with Bumpers during the dedication ceremony for the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in 1999. (Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images File Photo)

In a statement from the former president and Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton wrote:

“Dale Bumpers was a governor of profound historical importance, the most eloquent defender of our Constitution in the Senate, a man who put his considerable gifts of wisdom, wit, and passion to work for the common good.

For more than 40 years Hillary and I cherished his friendship. I am grateful that his advice made me a better governor and President, and that we laughed at each other’s jokes even when we’d heard them before. And I’m grateful that he welcomed Hillary to Arkansas and supported her in Washington.

I loved him. I loved learning from him and laughing with him. I will miss him very much. Our hearts go out to Betty, Brent, Bill, and Brooke, and all the Bumpers clan.”

After retiring from the Senate, Bumpers was a lobbyist with the Arent Fox law firm in Washington. He also served as director of the Center for Defense Information, as distinguished professor of public policy at the University of Arkansas and as a guest lecturer at Hendrix College, according to his biography at the University of Arkansas. He retired to Little Rock in 2008.

In a poll of Arkansas political scientists in 2000, Bumpers was the only governor in the 20th century rated “great.”

Bumpers attended the University of Arkansas after graduating from high school in 1943 but joined the Marines later that year. After his discharge in 1946, he returned to Arkansas and earned a degree in political science. While studying law at Northwestern University, his parents were killed in a car crash in 1949. He married his high school classmate Betty Lou Flanagan later that year and earned his law degree in 1951.

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