Bumpers: A senator remembered

He never saw me walk into the back of the room.

It was a Thursday afternoon in the late 1980s, and U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers from Arkansas was addressing a group of small business owners at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat at the time. It must have been a slow news day (which was rare on the Washington beat) because this wasn’t a major speech by any means. And I wasn’t trying to hide my presence. It’s just that I walked in late, and the senator didn’t see me.

Bumpers was one of the best orators to ever come our way. He knew how to play to an audience.

He would pace.

He would wave his arms.

The former Methodist Sunday school teacher from Charleston would have been an effective evangelist had he chosen to follow that path.

Bumpers said this to his audience: “I know you will find this hard to believe coming from the senior senator from Arkansas, but Wal-Mart has been responsible for killing more small businesses that anything that ever came along.”

I was taking notes.

The staff member accompanying Bumpers was Bill Massey, a Malvern native who later was appointed by President Clinton to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Massey’s head turned as he walked from the room at the end of the speech. He had seen me with my notebook.

Bumpers and Massey were headed to National Airport to catch a flight home to Arkansas.

I worked out of where I lived in those days — the basement of a townhouse on Capitol Hill — and walked back there to file my story.

Imagine that: An elected official from Arkansas criticizing Wal-Mart. The newspaper war between the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette had heated up. The Gazette correspondent wasn’t at the speech, and I had no doubt that my story would play on the front page of the Democrat the next morning since it was exclusive.

I had two phones on my desk — a business phone and a personal phone. The business phone rang as soon as I sat down, and I knew who it was.

Arkansas Democrat Washington bureau,” I answered.

“Rex, it’s Bill. The senator would like to speak to you,” Massey said.

“I bet he would,” I replied, a bit sarcastically.

The next thing I heard was the familiar voice of Dale Leon Bumpers.

“Rex, you know good and well that I never would have said what I did to those folks had I known you were in the room,” he said.

I replied: “I know that senator. But I was in the room. It was an open event, and you were on the record.”

He said: “Well, all I can do is ask you as a personal favor not to put that in tomorrow’s paper. If you do, I’ll live with the consequences since I said it.”

I had to make a decision.

I wonder to this day if I made the right one.

Here’s what I told him: “Senator, I’ve not yet mentioned this to my editor. We’re the only ones who know about this. If I don’t write it, I’m giving up a front-page story. The only way I can justify doing that in my mind is if I were to get two or three front-page stories in the future that the Gazette doesn’t get.”

Bumpers replied: “You have my word on it.”

I never wrote the story that day.

During the next few months, Bumpers’ office leaked me several stories that received front-page play.

It’s important to understand that Dale Bumpers had no reason to like the Arkansas Democrat, which had consistently been critical of him on its editorial page. But he was true to his word.

In that era before cell phones and the Internet, we did what I call shoe-leather reporting. I was in all six offices of the Arkansas congressional delegation on a daily basis, checking to see if there were news stories I needed to write. My favorite days were those in which one of our state’s two senators — Dale Bumpers or David Pryor — would invite me into their offices and simply tell off-the-record stories. I loved Arkansas history and politics (still do) and could listen to them for hours.

This will sound strange coming from a fellow who would go on to work for a Republican governor and a Republican president, but I likely became too close to the two Democratic senators from Arkansas. When I left Washington after four years on the beat, it was time for a new reporter who could be more objective when it came to Bumpers and Pryor. I still felt I could ask the tough questions when I needed to do so, but my fondness for both men had grown through the years.

One of the best compliments I ever received came one day while sitting in Bumpers’ office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He said to me: “There are only about two reporters I’ve ever been around with whom I felt I could be myself. You’re one of them.”

This former Marine knew he could tell me the latest joke or inside story. Off the record meant off the record.

Dale Bumpers came close several times to seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. I still wonder what would have happened had he run.

The first time was in 1976. Bumpers was in his second year in the Senate. Who knows? Dale Bumpers rather than Jimmy Carter might have been the young president from the South had the Arkansan chosen to run that year.

The last time was the 1988 election cycle. It was early 1987, and Bumpers was giving every indication that he would run.

I vividly remember taking the train from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in New York with Bumpers’ press secretary, Matt James, to cover what was being billed as a major foreign policy address at Columbia University. Earlier that day, Bumpers had met with potential donors in New York and received millions of dollars in commitments.

Before we took a late-night train back to Washington, I filed two stories — one about the meeting with donors and one on the foreign policy speech. The announcement that he would run for president seemed like a mere formality at that point.

John Robert Starr, the Democrat’s mercurial managing editor, told me that I would cover the Bumpers presidential campaign on a daily basis. At my current age of 56, I can’t think of anything much worse than spending the winter in Iowa and New Hampshire. At age 27, however, I couldn’t wait to be one of the “boys on the bus.”

Everything changed on a Friday night that spring.

James had a leading role in a community theater presentation on Capitol Hill. He was about to leave the office for opening night when Bumpers walked by his desk, handed him a sheet of paper and said, “Get this out to the media.”

It was a short statement, explaining why he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

I missed the story that night, but at least I had a good excuse.

Starr was in nearby Reston, Va., for a conference at the American Press Institute. He loved Mexican food and had called me earlier in the day.

“I know you have a favorite Mexican place you could take me for dinner,” he said. “Pick me up at 6 p.m. and we’ll go eat.”

As noted, this was the era before cell phones. No one back at the newsroom in Little Rock could find me. Meredith Oakley wound up doing the story from Little Rock since the Washington correspondent was out eating Mexican food with the boss.

After our dinner, I met some friends who were bank examiners from Arkansas. They were in town for training and had rented a hotel suite. I fell asleep on their couch while watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

I didn’t return to my place on Capitol Hill until the next morning. My answering machine was filled with messages from editors back in Little Rock. Whatever had happened that Friday, it was too late for me to do anything about it.

I had picked up my Washington Post outside but failed to open it. I got into the shower. As I got out, the phone was ringing. It was Don Johnson, the Sunday editor.

“Are you planning a follow-up story?” he asked.

“A follow-up story on what?” I replied.

When he told me what had happened the night before, I panicked.

I immediately called the Bumpers home (I always thought the senator lived on the best street possible for a politician — Honesty Way in Bethesda, Md.), and Betty Bumpers answered.

Here’s how the conversation went:

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson from the Arkansas Democrat. Is the senator home?

“No, he left about an hour ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“I think he might have gone to the office.”

“Do you know when he will return?”

“No, he didn’t say.”

“Please let him know I’m looking for him if he comes home.”

Since she thought he might be at the office, I sprinted the 12 blocks from my place to the Dirksen Senate Office Building. In those days, the photo IDs that congressional correspondents wore around our necks gave us access to the buildings at any hour. I went to the private door that led into Bumpers’ office and knocked.

No answer.

In desperation, I got down on the floor and peered through the crack at the bottom of the door to see if I could see anyone.

Then, I sprinted back to my place and again called the Bumpers’ home.

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson again. I went to the office, and the senator wasn’t there. Has he come home yet?

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you have any idea when he might?”

“No, I don’t.”

As a last resort, I said this: “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions.”

Betty Bumpers had no reason to talk with me on the record that day. Yet she did. She told of how the senator had been restless for weeks and was no longer sleeping well. She told me that she would have supported his decision regardless, but she finally had put her foot down and said: “Dale, you need to go ahead and make a decision one way or another.”

I hung up the phone and wrote the story. The Democrat ran it on the front page the next morning.

On Monday, Starr called, praising me for having an angle the Gazette hadn’t thought of.

If only he had known the full story.

By the fall of 1992, I had returned to Little Rock and was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (the Gazette had ceased publication in October 1991). With the Clinton presidential race dominating our coverage, I decided to give the Senate race between Bumpers and Mike Huckabee some attention. I would spend two days on the road with each of the two candidates (who could have dreamed that I would wind up working almost a decade with Huckabee in the governor’s office?) and write long stories on each campaign for the Sunday edition.

My two-day trip with Bumpers ended with an evening event in Camden. We were flying back to Little Rock from Ouachita County on a small plane late that night when I asked my final on-the-record question.

“Senator, something you used against J. William Fulbright when you beat him in 1974 was the accusation that he was out of touch with Arkansas; that he had become a part of the East Coast establishment. Let me ask you: Had you rather be at a fish fry in Camden or at a dinner party at Pamela Harriman’s townhouse in Georgetown?”

Harriman, who died in 1997, was an English-born socialite whose first husband was the son of Winston Churchill. Her third husband, beginning in 1971, was the well-known American diplomat, politician and businessman Averell Harriman. She became an American citizen the year she married Harriman (1971) and also became a key fundraiser for the Democratic Party. The dinner parties she threw at her Georgetown townhouse were the stuff of legend. Bill Clinton appointed her as the U.S. ambassador to France in 1993 and she held the title until her death in 1997. Clinton dispatched Air Force One to bring her body back to the United States and spoke at her funeral.

Bumpers looked at me when I asked the question and smiled his famous smile: “Oh hell, Rex, you know how I have to answer that.”

The thing is, he was at home at the toniest events in Washington and the most down-home events in Arkansas that you can imagine.

I can’t count the number of times I saw him speak to a civic club in Arkansas when the members would start the meeting mad about his vote on some issue. After about 20 minutes, those club members would be laughing and smiling. He had them eating out of the palm of his hand.

The Bumpers charisma isn’t easy to put into words. You had to experience it.

It was my great fortune to cover him as a newspaper reporter for several years, experiencing the magic on a daily basis.

We’ll never see another one quite like him.

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