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Pomp and Circumstance

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It'll be quite a ceremony -- you could even call it a spectacle -- at Fayetteville, Ark., come Sunday. It seems Bill Clinton is due back at the University of Arkansas, where he once taught law, to deliver the first in a new lecture series named after Dale Bumpers and his wife Betty.

It's a perfect pairing when you think about it. For it was Dale Bumpers who represented the former law professor, attorney general of Arkansas, and president of the United States at his impeachment trial and, even more impressive, got him off.

Now the duo share billing again. It'll be like the old days. Only this time recollected in tranquility. It's as if the actors were to stage a reunion long after the curtain had fallen on a farce.

Of course, Dale Bumpers would want Bill Clinton there, and of course Slick Willie -- now Slick William in his dignified older years -- would accept the invitation.

To put it as plain as only folk wisdom can, one hand washes the other -- as sure as night follows day, celebration acquittal, and academic honors high office.

There'll be no need to go into any inconvenient details on this auspicious occasion. They say a good memory is a great asset, but it's nothing compared to the advantages of a good forgettery.

O Mencken! Thou shouldst be living at this hour! The mutual flattery should be hip deep, and the speechifying grandiloquent -- a many-splendored thing. Also, a grand exercise in historical amnesia, political discretion and general vapidity of the highest order.

What is said may not be memorable -- the speaker, after all, will be Bill Clinton -- but what goes unsaid will surely resound. At least among those with memories that resist later editing.

There is a kind of genius in knowing just what not to say on such occasions. Both honorees showed a real talent for it in the course of their long and distinguished political careers. See the former president's testimony under oath, and his able counsel's folksy defense of it.

Dale Bumpers may have begun his involvement with this case by defending only one lie in a sordid little matter, but he was soon playing games with the historical record, too. So does one falsification lead to another. It happened like this:

Sen. Bumpers chose to close out his distinguished 24-year career in the United States Senate with an eloquent farewell address (all of his addresses are eloquent) in which he used a great quote from Harry S. Truman. It was his warning about the danger that the country courts when it has a president who can't be trusted to tell the truth:

"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.

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