What Dale Bumpers was

Dale Bumpers By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

In 1992, I interviewed the late Sen. Dale Bumpers while working my first reporting job for the Arkadelphia Daily Siftings Herald. As we sat on the hood of his gray Pontiac Bonneville outside Ouachita Baptist University’s football field, I asked him why he had never run for president despite once being included as a possible contender on the cover of Time magazine. He looked wistful for a moment, munched some popcorn, said I didn’t have enough space to print the reasons, and then talked about the strain that being president would cause for his family.

His campaign tagline that year while being challenged by future Gov. Mike Huckabee was, “What a senator should be.”

Bumpers, who died last week, would never be president. But even though I was a fan of Huckabee’s at the time and not covering the race as objectively as I should have, I remember thinking that the tagline was appropriate.

The important word in that tagline was “be,” not “do.” I can’t always agree with what Sen. Bumpers did, which is no criticism of him. For example, he voted against President Reagan’s military buildup, which many say hastened the end of the Cold War, which needed to be hastened. I buy their argument.

But more important than what Bumpers did was who he was. He was an orator and a statesman who respected the Constitution and appreciated history. Because of who he was, he took unpopular stands – against banning flag desecration, for handing the Panama Canal to the Panamanians – and then trusted that voters would understand his reasoning and be fair. Back when he was a country lawyer, he advised the Charleston School Board to obey the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka to let black students go to school with white students. Charleston became the first school district in the former Confederacy to do so.

He had common sense and understood simple math – specifically, that if you want to spend more, you’ll have to collect more. As governor of Arkansas, he increased teacher salaries, which he funded by raising taxes, not by financial trickery or by the state accepting money from Uncle Sam.

He was one of three senators to vote for the Reagan budget cuts but against the Reagan tax cuts of 1981, believing that the numbers did not add up in the midst of the defense buildup described a few paragraphs above.

Boy, was he right on that one. In 1981, the national debt, accumulated over nearly two centuries, was $1 trillion. By 1986, it had more than doubled. In the years since then, it’s grown to $19 trillion.

A big reason why is that a grand, unspoken bargain was created during the 1980s. The Republican Party had come under the spell of a theory, supply side economics, whose adherents promised that tax cuts would more than pay for themselves because of the increased economic growth they would spur. One unfortunate consequence of that thinking was that cutting government, while laudable, became not really necessary. That combination of growing government without paying for it obviously appealed to Democrats as well. No one had to make tough decisions because economic growth supposedly would fill in the gaps.

Only it didn’t. Government spent more, and tax receipts didn’t cover it. It was a great deal for officeholders in both parties and current taxpayers who’ve gotten a lot more government than they’ve paid for. But it’s been a terrible bargain for tomorrow’s taxpayers who will make up the difference or else follow our example and load up their own kids with debt. More than most in Congress, Bumpers refused to participate in the bargain.

Bumpers told me that day in 1992, “I want to be remembered as a guy who was proud of being a politician and who stood up for what he believed and what he felt was best for his country, even at times when it was very unpopular to do it.”

That is how he’ll be remembered – because of who he was, even more than what he did.

9 thoughts on “What Dale Bumpers was

  1. Well written essay. When I look at leaders like Bumpers and Carl Albert and compare them to the present crop of politicians in Arkansas and Oklahoma, it takes my breath away. The current office holders look like dwarves and hacks to me. They seem incapable of doing anything. No big ideas, no bi-partisan cooperation–nothing. Mary Fallin has to be the worst governor ever. She has taken Oklahoma to the bottom of the nation in education and healthcare while presiding over a 900 million dollar budget shortfall. The Tulsa World and the Tulsa hospitals have been screaming at her for years to do SOMETHING to help the vast number of medically uninsured. It just gets worse every year.

  2. I haven’t paid that close attention to Oklahoma, but it must be like Kansas – a supply-sider comes into office and cuts taxes without cutting spending because money will grow on trees, and then you have a shortfall.

  3. Steve, you’re exactly right about Fallin. She’s been busy whittling away at Oklahoma taxes while doing nothing to replace the revenue.
    The McClellan-Kerr navigation channel would be an impossibility today. None of these present day dwarves thinks that big and none of them believes in cooperating with others. It’s partisan politics, bickering, and name calling 24/7.

  4. As someone born in 1955, I remember the folks in office when I was learning about politics as a child in the 1960s and it is so frustrating and disappointing to see the lay of the political landscape today. We were a nation that went to the moon and back in just a decade with probably less computer power than my iPhone has. I can’t even imagine today’s politicians having enough sense to get behind such an effort unless it was a president of their own party pushing it. Senator Bumpers was cut from that earlier cloth, when America was able to come together and accomplish big things. I miss politicians like him. It is just another way the younger generation is being shortchanged nowadays.

  5. Steve, thanks for writing about Mr. Bumpers, one of my heroes. If only we had more like him. Of course, you know that I agreed with his votes, both on the military build up and on the tax cut, from which this country is still suffering as you acknowledge frequently when you lament the size of the national debt. We will never even begin to recover from the debt burden without undoing the massive cuts to the income tax. Look at what has happened in the years between the cut and now. There has been miserably little trickle down and the gap between the immensely wealthy and the rest of us is unconscionable. With a very high tax on income, there is little incentive to pay massive income bundles whether it be to actors, athletes, executives, lawyers, or hedge fund operators. This country seemed to do quite well with the 90 per cent tax rate on top income earners in the 1950’s through the 1960’s. What has happened since has awakened greed to an unsustainable degree.

    I will miss seeing your columns in the local paper, but will continue to enjoy it on line. Keep up the good work and tell it like it is.

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