This saga of bootstrapping from an impoverished boyhood to the Arkansas governor’s mansion and a distinguished senatorial career could easily serve as a manual for the legislatively inclined.
But it is the author’s total candor, combined with his facility for humor spun out of rural America’s plain talk, that lifts this remembrance well above the ordinary. Bumpers’s prose is not quite as golden as his oratorical reputation might suggest, but it clearly defines and celebrates the influences (primarily his father) and random events (some tragic and touching) that shaped his initial raw ambition for the recognition and power that come with public office and, in time, sparked the political conscience that gives such a life its direction. After a drunk driver killed his parents in 1949, the 24-year-old ex-Marine Bumpers—not a combat veteran, he is careful to stress—finished law school and returned to his East Arkansas hometown of Charleston (pop. 841) to marry, hang out his shingle, and attempt with negligible success to simultaneously carry on his father’s retail hardware business. As a lawyer he was no self-anointed paragon, eagerly glomming onto his opponents’ shadowy courtroom tactics, pragmatically dodging divorce cases where violence-prone ex-husbands posed a tangible threat, but in 18 years of practice he lost only two cases heard by a jury. He was both liberal and influential in persuading racist Charleston to become the first municipality in the former Confederate states to integrate public schools following the 1954 Supreme Court decision mandating it. Bumpers went on to thwart segrationist Orval Faubus’s attempt at a comeback, becoming in 1970 the youngest Arkansas governor ever (age 44) and, two years later, the most bored and frustrated. A surprise win over J. William Fulbright in 1974 sent Bumpers to the US Senate for 24 years; he was called back, ex-officio, to dramatically conclude the defense for longtime friend and colleague Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial (full text included).
Wry perspective on the eternal seriousness of casting one’s vote.