Paul Greenberg

"The only time this country ever gets into trouble is when there is some so-and-so in the White House lying to the American people."

The quote turned out to be an unfortunate choice, and the senator's timing even more so. For that was just before Mr. Bumpers would return to the Senate to defend his presidential client by saying, among other dubious things, that some lies on the part of a president really shouldn't be taken all that seriously.

The big problem with that selective approach to truth is that, once truth has been declared expendable where one subject is concerned, the truth about anything else becomes contingent on whether it suits our political purposes, too. And we are left unmoored. Bill Clinton only practiced moral relativism; in defense of his client, Dale Bumpers raised it to a philosophy.
The quotation from Harry Truman about the dangers of presidential dissimulation remains a jewel, if a kind of diamond in the rough. For when Mr. Truman told it with the bark off, the result was a kind of folk art.

Dale Bumpers said hearing Harry Truman talk about the importance of telling the truth was a Defining Moment in his own life, but he would soon enough forget it. At least officially. For when his valedictory address appeared in the Congressional Record, the quote from Mr. Truman had disappeared. Vanished. Gone. Down the memory hole. The official record had been "corrected."

When the omission in the official record was noted, it was blamed on somebody else. Some unidentified underling on the senator's staff must have dunnit.

Could it have been the senator himself who'd erased the quote from his speech? Oh, no, it had gone missing when "some staff member was cleaning it up," explained the Honorable Dale Bumpers.

The senator's loyal staff backed him up: He'd had no role in the deletion, they claimed. The senator hadn't even known about the omission. Case closed. The usual anonymous suspect had been rounded up. All was in order.

Ten years passed in the usual blur. The body had been buried, the questions interred. Any doubts lay a-molderin' in the grave. But somewhere deep, conscience must have stirred. Because that's when Dale Bumpers fessed up, or came close to it. "Whatever the staff did," he said, "I probably instructed them to do." Because when things were edited out of the official record, he admitted, "I did most of it myself."

Some of us had suspected as much, though I for one wasn't about to say so -- not without a confession. Or at least a semi-confession like this one. Call it a hang-up from a brief, inglorious stint as a court reporter for the estimable Columbia Missourian in Harry Truman's home state.

All of us journalism students at Mizzou were assigned beats on the local paper so we could learn the trade under the watchful eyes of veteran editors. They taught us not to leap to conclusions -- and that you never, ever fiddle with a direct quote. It was a useful lesson. Dale Bumpers might have profited by it.

Some of us still miss Harry Truman. His candor could be embarrassing -- just ask Bess -- but he was no moral relativist. His aye was aye, his nay nay.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.