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Former Senator And Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers Dies At 90

Dale Bumpers
Talk Business & Politics

Arkansas has lost a political legend. Dale Leon Bumpers, a four-term U.S. Senator and two-term governor, has passed away at the age of 90 after a long illness, multiple sources have confirmed.

Bumpers, a self-described small-town lawyer from Charleston, Ark., rose to political prominence as a long-shot candidate for governor in the 1970 campaign defeating the Faubus political machine and ushering in an era of sweeping governmental and tax reforms. In the U.S. Senate, he defeated powerful incumbent U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, one of the most influential voices in 20th century American international relations.

A charming and gifted orator with a huge personal affability, Bumpers became an endearing and persuasive political figure during his life in elected politics, flirting with Presidential runs and ultimately delivering the argument against impeachment of Pres. Bill Clinton in his 1999 trial.

Bumpers is survived by his wife, Betty, and three children. Details of his funeral are pending. The family released a short statement: “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. Arrangements for his memorial service are being handled by Roller Funeral Homes.”


Born Aug. 12, 1925, in Charleston (Franklin County), Bumpers grew up in the Depression. His father served a term in the state House of Representatives and encouraged his sons to attend local political events, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

“My father always taught us that politics was a noble profession,” Bumpers often said.

Bumpers briefly attended the University of Arkansas before joining the Marines in 1943. After serving in the Pacific theater during World War II, he graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Arkansas and then earned a law degree from Northwestern University in Illinois in 1951. In 1949, he married his Charleston classmate, Betty Lou Flanagan.

With his new law degree in hand, Bumpers returned to Charleston, where he practiced law, managed his late father’s Charleston Hardware and Furniture Company, and later operated a 350-acre cattle ranch. Years later, he titled his autobiography “The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town.”

In 1954, he advised the Charleston School Board to immediately desegregate its schools in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, making Charleston the first school district in the former Confederate states to desegregate.


Dale Bumpers
Credit UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture
UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture

Bumpers lost his first race for elective office when he ran for a House seat in 1962, but he would never lose again. In 1970, he entered a crowded field of Democratic candidates for Governor aiming to take on two-term incumbent Winthrop Rockefeller, a Republican. A fresh face on the scene with a winning smile and huge personal appeal, Bumpers won a Democratic run-off against Faubus, defeated Rockefeller in the general election and began his statewide political career.

During his two two-year terms as governor, Bumpers persuaded the Legislature to reduce the number of agencies reporting to the governor and to raise income taxes and make the rates more progressive while increasing teachers’ salaries. Under his leadership, a state-supported kindergarten program was created, textbooks were provided to high school seniors, community colleges received more state payments, cities were given more power, and state parks were expanded, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

After two terms as governor, Bumpers challenged five-term U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright in the Democratic primary in 1974, winning with 65% of the vote and then winning the general election. He served four Senate terms defeating GOP newcomer Mike Huckabee, who would later become governor, in his final re-election bid in 1992.

During Bumpers’ Senate career, he was a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and was chairman and senior minority member of the Committee on Small Business. He supported efforts to reduce the national debt and often opposed increased military spending, including President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as “Star Wars.” He voted against 30 proposed efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution.

In his book, “The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town,” Bumpers said the most politically volatile vote during his 24 years in the U.S. Senate was the vote on the Panama Canal treaties, with a yes vote turning over the important canal to the Panamanian government.

“For three weeks prior to the vote, my office received three thousand calls and letters a day, 99 percent of which were in opposition to the treaties. That was ten times more calls and mail than I ever received on any issue before or after,” Bumpers wrote. He would eventually vote for the treaties.

“My pollster said my vote cost me 10 percent of the vote in my race in 1980, 5 percent in 1986, and 3 percent in 1992,” Bumpers wrote.

Bumpers was often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate and considered running in 1976, 1984 and 1988 – each time deciding not to do so.

Instead, Bumpers was called upon to defend another president from Arkansas during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. After leaving the Senate, Bumpers was asked by Clinton to speak to the Senate, which he did on January 21, 1999, in an almost one-hour speech that received wide acclaim.

“We’re 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. … It is a sex scandal,” he said. Famously, Bumpers quoted writer H.L. Mencken who said, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money’ – it’s about money. And when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex’ – it’s about sex.”

In his post-Senate career, Bumpers became director of the Center for Defense Information, a think tank concerned with military spending, and he joined the Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn law firm, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He retired at the end of 2008 and moved to Little Rock.

In 2003, he visited KUAR to discuss the release of his autobiography and was interviewed by Ron Breeding. A C-SPAN camera crew was following Bumpers that day and you can see part of the KUAR interview below.

Political leaders in Arkansas, both Democrats and Republicans, have been responding to the news of Bumpers' death. Below are many of the statements that have been released.

Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton:

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.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson:

The entire state mourns the loss of an Arkansas legend. In my first statewide race, Dale took me to school on Arkansas politics. He was a master storyteller, and his stump speaking was impossible to beat. From that first campaign in which we were competitors to the time we served together in Congress, I have admired Dale for his skill, heartfelt convictions and his sense of humor. After he retired, he continued to set an example of civic responsibility and good will during a time of increased partisanship in our nation.

Former Gov. Mike Beebe:

An elite public speaker, Dale's passion for good policy and responsible government brought opponents to common ground and inspired the detached to become involved citizens. He paired his light-hearted swagger with his unabashed love for the Arkansans who carried him from a Charleston, Arkansas, law office to the halls of the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman:

He was a statesman who served Arkansas with distinction. His legacy is one of dedication to this state we all love.

Former Arkansas governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee:

I first knew him as a political opponent and I must confess he beat me like a drum. Later, when I became Governor and he was the Senior Senator we worked very well together. Senator Bumpers was extremely helpful to the state and to me personally. His distinguished service to his country in the Marine Corps, to his state as a Governor and Senator is a legacy of which his family can be justly proud. Our political differences aside, he was a dedicated public servant who always reminded his audiences that 'public service is a noble calling.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman:

Dale Bumpers was a larger than life figure in Arkansas politics who was highly respected in Washington D.C. and here at home. His sincere dedication to the state of Arkansas was paired with exceptional oratory skills and a relentless commitment to every challenge he took on. Senator Bumpers leaves behind a legacy of public service, civic responsibility and accomplishments that has undoubtedly made our state a better place to live.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton:

As both Governor and Senator, Dale's tireless dedication to our state spanned decades and his legacy will long outlive his time in office. We are forever grateful for his service and his commitment to Arkansas.

Vincent Insalaco, Chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas:

Today, Arkansas mourns the loss of a great man whose good deeds will forever continue to benefit us all.

Mike Vayda, dean of the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas:

He was a great ambassador for the state, and our agriculture and food industries. We are proud to have his name associated with the Bumpers College and to honor his legacy with the Dale and Betty Bumpers Distinguished Lecture Series.