Columns » Ernest Dumas

Stop presses: Clintons ambitious

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Here are a couple of earthshaking developments: It turns out that Hillary Clinton is obsessed with privacy and that across the years former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers detected ethical failings in other politicians, even friends like Bill and Hillary Clinton.

With the Clintons, matters that would be of only passing interest with another politician, like a petulant remark, using a personal email server instead of the government's or a friend's private criticism, become political convulsions that consume the news cycle for months and often years.

With any other public figure — say, Secretary of State Colin Powell or Jeb Bush — using one's personal email for private chats as well as for work would be a piffling matter, unwise for the political damage it might inflict in a future campaign, but no scandal. After all, emails are what until a few years ago were office and phone chats that never made it into the public records where political researchers and historians prowl. But it was exactly what you would expect of Hillary Clinton, whose monomania about protecting her privacy and much of her own work in private and public capacities, such as her investments as a young Arkansas mother and her legal billing records on Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan in the 1980s, nearly cost her husband the presidency.

Reporters and political denizens working for Republican opponents have for months been combing archives in Arkansas for some trifle that reporters overlooked in the Clinton tales of the '90s. A writer for Mother Jones, a leftist journal, who was trying to figure out how Hillary's two-decade sojourn in Arkansas shaped her development, poring over the files of Sen. Bumpers in the university archives, found folders of what purported to be an occasional diary, penned not by Bumpers but typed by an office worker, apparently from Bumpers' dictation or from random thoughts he uttered around the office. The woman who apparently typed them is, like Bumpers, in no condition to remember it.

The story was not cast as a scandal, but as a historical curiosity: The senator who made one of the great orations in Senate history in defense of President Clinton at his impeachment trial had, almost 20 years earlier, privately uttered doubts about the absolute purity of both Clintons' political strivings. In his own oral history 15 years ago, Bumpers assessed Clinton as one of the 20th century's great presidents and later predicted the same of Hillary Clinton if she could quell her hawkish instincts.

But in the summer of 1982, right after Clinton had won the Democratic nomination to regain the governor's office, a Bumpers "diary" entry said the Clintons had ambitions so manic that they would do about anything to get elected and that he knew of ethical breaches by the Clintons in the recent campaign.

Two attributes define Dale Bumpers' political career: an obsession with ethical behavior and a high-mindedness about campaigning that distinguished him from nearly every successful politician of his time. He refused all gifts, including one that arrived at the governor's mansion his first week in office, a Rolex watch that a South Arkansas jeweler had sent, the price tag still attached, in the hope Bumpers would reappoint him to the State Police Commission. The watch was returned and he didn't get the appointment, so the jeweler hired a bumbling hit man to kill the governor.

Bumpers obsessed so much about a potential ethical slipup by one of his 25,000 government employees that he confessed years later that his last day in the governor's office in 1974 was the happiest of his life because he no longer needed to worry that his three children might read that their daddy had run a corrupt government.

What set Bumpers apart from his colleagues was that he considered it dishonest or weak to take purely political stands. Like the great Irish statesman Edmund Burke, you were obliged to voters to be guided by your conscience, not what might be safe or popular. In an oral history after his retirement he expressed sorrow that he had once acceded to his friend Sen. Jim Sasser of Tennessee, who nearly dragged him down the aisle one day to change his vote against a pointless gun-control resolution that Republicans had introduced to set up liberal Democrats. Sasser told him if he didn't change his vote to aye he would be beaten in the next election, but Bumpers remained deeply chagrined about changing his vote.

But about those criticisms of the Clintons: It is true that in his 13 political campaigns Bumpers never publicly criticized an opponent. His father told him that anyone who ran for public office deserved respect. But in private he was always free with his judgments about fellow politicians, friends and opponents alike, whom he usually found to be too political, too crass, or ignorant. At lunch one day in 1985 he told Arkansas's most powerful businessman that he was "senile," which nearly got him a well-financed opponent. The diary pages carried criticisms of several of his close colleagues and of President Reagan, whom he always thought was in the early stages of dementia.

The remark that got so much attention and that will be repeated many times the next 18 months (the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorialized twice in the three days after it was reported that even the great Dale Bumpers said the Clintons had no character) was that he knew of ethical breaches by the Clintons in the 1982 campaign.

I think I know what he was talking about. Clinton had savaged his Democratic runoff opponent, honest Joe Purcell, for refusing to sign a petition for a massive Constitutional amendment to elect the state's utility regulators and to enshrine tough utility rate rules in the Constitution. Clinton said he had not decided how he would vote on the amendment but that he, but not Purcell, thought the people should be allowed to decide. It was not commonly known outside the Clinton circle that Bill and Hillary had helped write the amendment. Clinton endorsed it a couple of weeks before the election, but the Arkansas Supreme Court tossed it off the ballot.

Dale Bumpers was offended by the Clintons' petty guile that summer, but it is safe to say that not a few politicians have done worse.

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