Dale Bumpers, former Arkansas governor and U.S. senator, dead at 90

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 02, 2016 2:41 PM

By Steve Barnes

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - Dale Bumpers, the small-town lawyer who served Arkansas as governor and in the U.S. Senate and delivered a stirring speech during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial that helped save his presidency, died at home on Friday at the age of 90, his family said on Saturday.

Bumpers died surrounded by his family, said his wife Betty and his children Brent, Bill and Brooke Bumpers in a statement.

Bumpers had been in failing health for months. In December he suffered a broken hip in a fall at his Little Rock home. Surgery was deemed successful but he remained bedridden after returning home.

Bumpers, a folksy and eloquent Southern Democrat who was a close friend of Clinton, served in the Senate for 24 years after he toppled storied Senator J. William Fulbright in a 1974 primary election.

"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," Bill Clinton, who also served as Arkansas governor, said in a statement on Saturday.

Just weeks after retiring from the Senate, Bumpers was part of Clinton's legal team fighting impeachment. In his famous closing argument on Jan. 21, 1999, he implored his former colleagues not to remove the Democratic president from office, as Republicans were demanding, on charges arising from a sexual affair with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.

"You can take some comfort, colleagues, in the fact that I'm not being paid. And when I'm finished, you'll probably think the White House got their money's worth," Bumpers, a noted orator who injected some humor into the grave proceedings, said on the Senate floor.

During an era of volcanic partisanship in Washington, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had approved two articles of impeachment against Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. That set up a trial in the Senate and a vote on whether to remove the president from office.

Bumpers argued that Clinton had committed moral lapses and deserved censure, but his cover-up fell short of "high crimes and misdemeanors" that would necessitate ousting him.

"There's a total lack of proportionality, a total lack of balance in this thing. The charge and the punishment are totally out of sync," Bumpers told a rapt audience on the Senate floor.

Bumpers offered no apologies or excuses for Clinton's behavior, saying it was "indefensible, outrageous, unforgivable, shameless." He also described the suffering endured by First Lady Hillary Clinton and the couple's 18-year-old daughter, Chelsea.

"We are here today because the president suffered a terrible moral lapse, a marital infidelity, not a breach of the public trust, not a crime against society," said the silver-haired Bumpers, casually striding back and forth as he spoke.

Bumpers' closing speech for Clinton's defense team was credited with strongly buttressing Clinton's cause. The Senate, despite being controlled by Republicans, ultimately voted to acquit Clinton of the charges in February 1999.

Bumpers, born on Aug. 12, 1925, in Charleston, Arkansas, served in the Marine Corps during World War Two before becoming a successful small-town lawyer.

He ran for governor in 1970, and during his four-year term restructured the Southern state's tax system and reorganized its government.

In 1974, Bumpers was elected to the U.S. Senate, where during his four terms he worked to increase funding for improving childhood vaccines for diseases like measles, mumps, whooping cough and polio and developing new vaccines for diseases like bacterial meningitis. A government vaccine research center is named after him and his wife.

A fiscal conservative and social liberal, he helped to sink the Superconducting Super Collider subatomic particle accelerator and sought to deny funding to the International Space Station and President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense plan.

Bumpers was a "a man of unusual conviction, passion and resolve," the late Robert Byrd, a fellow Democratic senator, once said about his colleague. "He has been called the last Southern liberal, and he is proud of it."

(Reporting by Steve Barnes in Arkansas and Will Dunham in Washington; Editing by Frank McGurty and W Simon)