Dale Bumpers, a former Arkansas governor and U.S. senator who earned the nickname “giant killer” for taking down incumbents, and who later gave a passionate speech defending Bill Clinton during the president’s impeachment trial, has died. He was 90.
Bumpers, also the attorney for the Charleston School Board in 1954 when the board voted to integrate, died Friday night in Little Rock, according to his son, Brent Bumpers. Bumpers was under hospice care and died due to 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 Gov. 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 would go 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 for Fulbright’s 1974 campaign against Bumpers — before the U.S. Senate during Clinton’s impeachment trial.
Clinton had been impeached by the House 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.
He 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 prohibit 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 also supported environmental legislation and in 1993 devised a land exchange to swap government-owned Idaho timberland for wetlands in Arkansas in which 41,000 acres of wetlands and bottomland hardwood forest were added to the White River and Cache River National Wildlife Refuges. The Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Arkansas was named in his honor in 2014.
As governor, Bumpers pressured legislators for an increase in the personal income tax in order to raise teachers’ salaries and succeeded in securing free textbooks for high school students.
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.
Bumpers was also 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.
Bumpers is survived by his wife, Betty Bumpers, two sons and a daughter. Funeral services are pending.