Dale Bumpers, a former Arkansas governor and U.S. senator who earned the nickname “giant killer” for taking down incumbents, and who gave a passionate speech defending Bill Clinton during the president’s impeachment trial, has died. He was 90.
Bumpers died Friday night in Little Rock, according to his son, Brent Bumpers. Bumpers was under hospice care and died from natural causes and complications from a broken hip suffered in a recent fall, his son said.
Bumpers was a little-known lawyer from Charleston when he ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1970 against a field that included former Gov. Orval Faubus. After finishing second in the primary, Bumpers defeated Faubus for the Democratic nomination — then beat two-term Republican incumbent Winthrop Rockefeller in the general election.
Four years later, Bumpers challenged and defeated incumbent Sen. J. William Fulbright in a Democratic primary, leading to the “giant killer” nickname, and went on to win the U.S. Senate seat.
Bumpers’ signature moment on the national stage came in 1999, just weeks after leaving the Senate, when he defended Clinton — who had worked on Fulbright’s 1974 campaign against Bumpers — before the U.S. Senate during Clinton’s impeachment trial.
Clinton had been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on charges of lying about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky while testifying before a grand jury in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.
Bumpers called the matter a sex scandal while delivering the closing argument as the Senate considered removing Clinton from office.
Clinton “suffered a terrible moral lapse, a marital infidelity. Not a breach of the public trust, not a crime against society,” Bumpers said. “H.L Mencken said one time, ‘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.’”
Clinton was acquitted by the Senate.
Bumpers would later say that he didn’t want to give the closing statement, but Senate leaders and Clinton called to ask him to do so.
A statement from Bill and Hillary Clinton did not mention the impeachment trial, but praised Bumpers’ work as governor and senator.
“For more than 40 years Hillary and I cherished his friendship. I am grateful that his advice made me a better governor and president,” Clinton said. “I loved him. I loved learning from him and laughing with him. I will miss him very much.”
Bumpers had been known in the Senate for his oratorical skills, as well as his opposition to amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including one that would have prohibited busing of public school students.
Brent Bumpers said he believes his father would want to be remembered as both a champion of the underdog and a defender of the Constitution.
“He often listed that as among his proudest battles he fought against many efforts to amend the Constitution. He revered it so much,” Brent Bumpers said.
Bumpers was considered a potential Democratic candidate for president in 1980 and 1984, but declined to run. He would later say he believed his best chance at winning the presidency had been in 1976, when Democratic former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter won the White House.
Dale Leon Bumpers was born in Charleston on Aug. 12, 1925. He was an attorney for the Charleston School Board in 1954 when the board voted to integrate, just two months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregated schools. It was the first district among the 11 former Confederate states to integrate.
“We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do,” Bumpers told the Associated Press in 2007.
In 1986, Bumpers won reelection to the Senate by defeating current Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican.
“The entire state mourns the loss of an Arkansas legend,” Hutchinson said in a statement Saturday. “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.”
Former Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, called Bumpers a friend and mentor.
“Dale’s passion for good policy and responsible government brought opponents to common ground and inspired the detached to become involved citizens,” Beebe said.
Bumpers is survived by his wife, Betty, two sons and a daughter.