Orator, former senator from Arkansas to be crucial closer in Clinton's defense; Bumpers served 24 years in body he will address


WASHINGTON -- Just before Bill Clinton was to go on national television Aug. 17 and admit to the world that he had been untruthful about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Sen. Dale Bumpers, a fellow Arkansas Democrat, considered calling the president to offer some advice.

He didn't. But after the speech was widely criticized for being too defiant and lacking sufficient contrition, he wished he had.

Today, Bumpers has a second chance to come to the president's rescue.

The 73-year-old country lawyer-turned-lawmaker -- who retired from the Senate last year after 24 years in the elite club -- has been tapped by the White House defense team to make the closing arguments on behalf of the president at the Senate impeachment trial.

"There is no better closer," says Skip Rutherford, a Little Rock, Ark., executive with close ties to Bumpers and Clinton. "He is one of the most effective communicators of our time."

Indeed, the White House is hoping Bumpers' oratorical talents, teamed with his good relations with Democrats and Republicans and his knowledge of the Senate, will hold sway with the 100 triers of the president.

"He's our Henry Hyde," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, referring to the genial, eloquent Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who closed the prosecutors' case against Clinton last week with a dramatic flourish.

In fact, Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Republican, said he believed the White House felt the need to tap Bumpers because House prosecutors were so compelling in making their case for conviction.

Bumpers, who came to the Senate in 1974 after having been governor of Arkansas for four years, earned a reputation in Congress as a liberal maverick who embraced environmental issues, deplored government waste -- his pet issue was opposition to the space station -- and vigorously fought amendments to the Constitution.

But he was perhaps best known as an effective speaker, taking to the floor of the Senate, often on behalf of quixotic causes, and roaming as he talked, courtesy of a long cord attached to his desk microphone.

"I think it's going to be very interesting," California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said yesterday of Bumpers' return to the Senate. "I hear he's brought his long cord."

But with his eloquence came loquaciousness, a trait a number of senators noted yesterday, suggesting they could be in for a long day today.

"He might make a deal: 'I'll speak short if you all vote for a motion to dismiss,' " joked Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat.

Not everyone, however, is convinced Bumpers still lives up to his rhetorical rave reviews.

Said one Republican aide, who spoke yesterday on the condition of anonymity, "He might have been a good orator early in his career, but what's bothered me over the past six years is that his level of outrage was always the same -- whether he was talking about a nuclear freeze or Tastee Freeze."

Bumpers splits his time between Washington -- where he started a job this month as director of the Center for Defense Information, a watchdog group that monitors military spending -- and Arkansas, where he teaches at two colleges.

An Arkansas native, Bumpers ran for governor in 1970 as an unknown, but, with his charm and forceful oratory, beat segregationist former Gov. Orval E. Faubus in the primary and then Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the general election.

Four years later, he was popular enough to unseat Arkansas' nationally acclaimed Sen. J. William Fulbright.

"He was a giant-killer in Arkansas politics," said Rutherford, noting Bumpers' political opponents. "He's no slouch when it comes to formidable opposition."

Bumpers, whose wife, Betty, is a longtime peace activist, considered running for president three times -- most seriously in 1988, when many prominent Democrats thought he'd be the class of the field and encouraged him to run.

But he decided against a presidential bid, saying at the time that the "total disruption of one's life" -- and one's family's life -- was too high a price to pay.

While he, Clinton and former Arkansas Sen. David Pryor -- all former Arkansas governors -- have long been political allies, some note a certain tension between the president and Bumpers.

One senator, who asked not to be named, said there was a political rivalry between the two that dated back to the elder Arkansan's defeat of Fulbright, Clinton's patron.

Bumpers, more of a traditional Southern liberal Democrat than a New Democrat, had no problem opposing Clinton from time to time on issues -- the welfare bill, the 1997 tax bill and, most notably, the line-item veto, which the senator excoriated the president for supporting.

After nearly a quarter-century in the Senate, Bumpers decided to make his exit last year, noting the increasingly shrill and partisan nature of politics in Washington.

Although he has condemned Clinton's conduct as "unconscionable and mindless," he has described the impeachment proceedings as a "tragedy," warning that the process threatens the nation's democracy.

This month, he predicted that if there was a Senate trial, "it will be very shrill. It'll be hostile. It'll be volatile. And it won't be a pretty sight."

Today, he enters the fray again, as the White House makes the calculation that the clubby Senate will lend a more sympathetic ear to one of its own.

"He's not going to speak in lawyerese," says Democratic Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana. "He'll speak as a person who has served with distinction in the Senate. He's really still one of us."

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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