If you’re a Democrat dreaming about your perfect presidential candidate, here’s where your fantasies might take you:Lots of good Bumpers anecdotes follow.
Start with a child from a small town deep in the heart of a red state. Endow him or her with unusual intelligence and a strong set of values—honesty, compassion, civic engagement—passed down from a father who was a community pillar.
Give him a good education, a stint in the military and a gift of the gab that fuses eloquence with an inexhaustible supply of down-home humor. Put him through a crushing burden—the death of his parents in a car crash—that brings him back to the small town of his birth to manage his family’s store.
Then, well into middle age, watch him mount a campaign for governor, with no money and 1 percent name recognition, against some of the most formidable politicians of his time—and watch as he vanquishes them one by one. Four years later, after reforming everything from the tax structure to the school system, he runs for the U.S. Senate against the most formidable figure in the state and—without running a single negative ad—defeats him in a landslide. Election after election, he wins despite defying popular opinion on just about every third rail he can find.
Happily, this is no fantasy, but biography. It belongs to Dale Bumpers, the Arkansas governor and U.S. senator who died at age 90 a year ago last New Year’s Day, and who—unhappily—embodies a kind of politics that may not be possible in today’s toxic environment.