Former U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark) has died at 90, and his obituaries respectfully note his successful political career that led him to the Arkansas State House as well as Washington, D.C. His death is nicely timed with the re-emergence, thanks to Donald Trump and Bill Cosby, of scrutiny of Bill Clinton’s proclivities as a sexual predator. Bumpers played a key role in not only allowing Clinton to escape accountability for that reprehensible conduct and other conduct required for him to continue it, but also in corrupting the Presidency, the public and the nation.
Good job, Senator. Sorry you’re dead, but now, while you are briefly back in the public eye, is the time to be clear about your legacy.
On January 21, 1999, late in the Clinton impeachment proceedings on the Senate floor, recently retired Senator Dale Bumpers took center stage to defend his fellow Arkansas Democrat as he fought for his political life. The fact that Bumpers was allowed to make such a speech proved that the proceedings were rigged, and were nothing but partisan theater. I don’t think Chief Justice Rehnquist, who supposedly presided over the impeachment “trial,” should have allowed Bumpers to speak; maybe the Chief Justice had to: I am unclear on whether he could have acted like a judge if he wanted to. Bumpers was not then a member of the body, and he introduced no evidence. Indeed, his entire function was to mischaracterize the issues, confuse the public, and remind his Democratic colleagues that their first duty was to the party rather than the nation.
That being the case, he did his job well.
Reading the transcript of his speech again for the first time in over a decade, I was struck at how terrible—cynical, misleading, dishonest—it was. The speech essentially distilled all of the rationalizations and excuses, repeated ad nauseum by Lanny Davis and others on cable TV since the Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken, into a credible imitation of a sincere, non-partisan appeal by an elder statesman. Masterful it was; it was also rotten to the core.
After a couple of jokes—summaries of the evidence in real trials don’t include jokes, unless the lawyer thinks he can get away with treating the trial itself as a joke, which was Bumpers’ evident intent—Bumpers began with a lie: that he was there defending Bill Clinton not because of his political and personal loyalty to the man with whom he had benefited from a long professional association, but because of Bumpers’ devotion to the Constitution of the United States. He thus moved on to the fallacious argument of an appeal to authority, in this case, a disgraceful and partisan petition by 400 almost entirely Democratic historians asserting that a decision to convict held the potential for destabilizing the office of the presidency.
That petition was shameful and unprofessional (I wrote about why at the time), and now we know it was also wrong. Because of the Clinton kangaroo court-decision to make an impeachment trial nothing but a test of polls and political manipulation, impeachment has been effectively eliminated as a control over Presidential power of any kind. The current President, who has on multiple occasions willfully violated the Constitution with full confidence that impeachment is politically impossible, has been a primary beneficiary.
Next Bumpers played the rare “nobody should have even found out about this” card (a rationalization that needs to be added to the list, I realize):
“We are here because of a five-year relentless, unending investigation of the president. Fifty billion dollars, hundreds of FBI agents fanning across the nation examining in detail the microscopic lives of people.”
Uh, Senator, wherever you are? The Clinton investigations cost taxpayers almost $80 million, which ain’t hay, but 50 billion is an absurd exaggeration. Oh, that was a mistake, you say? In a courtroom, you have to correct material mistakes, and as a lawyer, you damn well knew it. I never heard any correction. None was submitted And I’m not certain at all that the misrepresentation was a “mistake.”
Moreover, the reason for all that money being spent was that the Clintons refused to cooperate, denied everything, and fought the investigation tooth and nail. You know—like the IRS and Benghazi investigations.
Then Bumpers said…
“But after all of those years and $50 million of Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, you name it, nothing, nothing, the president was found guilty of nothing, official or personal.”
Not true. Clinton was found to have lied under oath in court, when questioned about Lewinsky in the Paula Jones lawsuit. He was found to have lied outright to the press and the American people, and obviously obstructed justice. He also broke the sexual harassment law he had signed into law himself. he hadn’t been found guilty in court, because this was the trial, and it hadn’t concluded yet.
What a whopper!
After muddying the water, misrepresenting facts, demeaning the proceedings and launching rationalizations, Bumpers announced his central lie…
“You’re here today because the president suffered a terrible moral lapse, a marital infidelity. Not a breach of the public trust, not a crime against society, the two things Hamilton talked about in Federalist Paper number 65 — I recommend it to you before you vote — but it was a breach of his marriage vows.” It was a breach of his family trust It is a sex scandal. H.L. Mencken said one time, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money,’ it’s about money.” And when you hear somebody say, “This is not about sex,” it’s about sex.
Thus were the office, the proceedings, the public and the culture corrupted. Using this false characterization as a foundation, Bumpers was free to use every rationalization he could think of, and he thought of many. He began with “Think of the children!“, evoking Chelsea as he said,
“To say constantly that the president lied about this and lied about that, as I say, I thought that was too much for a family that has already been about as decimated as a family can get.”
President Clinton was the one who should have considered that factor before he did in fact, lie about this and lie about that.
Next on Bumpers’ rationalization parade were the #1 rationalization, “Everybody does it” [“Sure, you say, he should have thought of all that beforehand. And indeed he should. Just as Adam and Eve should have. Just as you and you and you and you, and millions of other people who have been caught in similar circumstances, should have thought of it before.”] and #19. The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” or “Everybody makes mistakes!”
Bumpers even said “none of us are perfect.” The President of the United States, however, as the national leader and role model as well as the exemplar and symbol of the entire nation and its culture, has an ethical obligation to try to be as perfect as he can be, and the public trusts that he understands that. Clinton’s conduct was ludicrously far from “not perfect.” He lied under oath, subverting justice; he engineered a cover-up; he lied to the American people; he violated laws, and he set out to lower the public’s ethical standards so they would shrug it off, permanently lowering societal standards. Nor were any of these were “mistakes.” They were intentional, they were calculated, and Clinton still resented being required to account for them.
Next came “The King’s Pass”: “And the people are saying: Please don’t protect us from this man, 76 percent of us think he’s doing a fine job.“ After that, #42. The Hillary Inoculation, or “If he/she doesn’t care, why should anyone else?”, but with the ironic twist of using foreign leaders in place of Hillary: “The truth of the matter is, this nation has never enjoyed greater prestige in the world than we do right now.”
Do you know why so many Americans are incapable of coherent ethical analysis? It is because public figures they trust who citizens think know more than they do, like U.S. Senators and journalists, teach them to substitute invalid rationalizations for right and wrong.
Having already falsely framed the impeachment issue as one only of personal morality and “sex,” Bumpers concluded with a pseudo-scholarly/legal analysis of the impeachment provision in the Constitution, concluding that a only a serious “breach of trust” qualified as “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Bumpers insisted that Clinton had not committed perjury (Clinton had committed perjury), and that “an unfaithful relationship does not even come close to being an impeachable offense.”
Straw man. Nobody except Democrats claimed that Clinton’s adultery was an impeachable offense, or the issue in the impeachment trial.
Finally, Bumpers concluded by resorting to that old standby of the lawless, Rationalization #30. The Prospective Repeal: “It’s a bad law/stupid rule.” Nothing short of treason or bribery is a sufficient reason to impeach a President, and to do so would do immeasurable damage to the institution, he argued.
In other words, Bumpers, a lawyer who knew that such an argument was considered unethical in court, argued jury nullification.
I am not at all certain that Clinton should have been convicted in his impeachment trial, but I am absolutely certain that his acquittal needed to be achieved using facts, legitimate arguments and ethical analysis, not deception, logical fallacies, tricks, rationalizations and obfuscation. Bumpers’ role in elevating all of those to respectable tools of analysis did tangible harm to the integrity of the process, as well as to public civil literacy.
That harm has metastasized in the intervening years, while Bumpers himself has faded to a footnote. The occasion of his death should be used as an opportunity to make Senator Bumpers’ legacy clear. We should not forget that he chose to corrupt the values of his country, when he had an opportunity and an obligation to strengthen them.
You can read all of Bumpers’ presentation here.