The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town: A Memoir

Overview

"Dale Bumpers was reared during the depths of the Great Depression, in the miserably poor town of Charleston, Arkansas, population 851. He was twelve years old when he saw and heard Franklin Roosevelt, who was campaigning in the state. Afterward, his father assured young Dale that he, too, could be president." "Many years later, in 1970, after suffering financial disaster and personal tragedy, Bumpers ran for governor of Arkansas, starting out with one-percent name recognition and $50,000, most of which was borrowed from his brother and sister. ...
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Overview

"Dale Bumpers was reared during the depths of the Great Depression, in the miserably poor town of Charleston, Arkansas, population 851. He was twelve years old when he saw and heard Franklin Roosevelt, who was campaigning in the state. Afterward, his father assured young Dale that he, too, could be president." "Many years later, in 1970, after suffering financial disaster and personal tragedy, Bumpers ran for governor of Arkansas, starting out with one-percent name recognition and $50,000, most of which was borrowed from his brother and sister. He defeated arch-segregationist Orval Faubus in the primary and a Rockefeller in the general election. He served four years as governor and then twenty-four years in the U.S. Senate. He never lost an election." "Two weeks after Bumpers left the Senate, President Bill Clinton called him with an urgent plea to make the closing argument in his impeachment trial. That speech became an instant classic of political oratory." The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town is the work of a master politician blessed with wry insight into character and a gift for rib-tickling tales. It is a classic American story.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Dale Bumpers is one of the most eloquent speakers ever to grace the United States Senate. He is also one of the wittiest. Far more important, he is a good and wise man, full of timeless lessons and unshakable devotion to our Constitution and country.” —President William J. Clinton

“Former Arkansas governor Bumpers served in the Senate for twenty-four years and is currently with a Washington law firm. However, this witty book indicates that he may have a new career as a humorist on the printed page. . . . These charming tales from a country lawyer turned national politician are thoroughly enjoyable.” —Publishers Weekly

“How agreeable to read a serious politician’s memoir and find it as full of wit, bite, scorn, compassion, and insight as Dale Bumpers himself.” —Norman Mailer

“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.” —Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Former Arkansas governor Bumpers served in the Senate for 24 years and is currently with a Washington law firm. However, this witty book indicates he may have a new career as a humorist on the printed page. Born in 1925, he grew up in tiny, poverty-stricken Charleston, Ark., where his father ran the Charleston Hardware and Funeral Home. He paints an affectionate yet haunting portrait of smalltown, Depression-era American family life. Bumpers has had a long, eventful life, but his amusing anecdotes and razor-sharp recollections of the 1930s and '40s are the most appealing portions of this engrossing memoir. He made extra money picking cotton, peas and potatoes, and at 15, started working at a grocery store and began dating his future wife. "I smelled like a goat barn from cleaning the meat box, and Betty's devotion got tested every Saturday night," he remembers. A WWII Marine, Bumpers was at Northwestern Law on the GI Bill in 1949 when his parents were killed in a car crash. "Flat broke" after graduation, he returned to Charleston, took over the family business and became the town's only lawyer. Although he "had no idea of how to begin practicing law... no office, no library, no clients," his career eventually took off. These charming tales from a country lawyer turned national politician are thoroughly enjoyable. Photos not seen by PW. (On sale Feb. 18) Forecast: In addition to national media appearances, Bumpers's author tour includes stops throughout Arkansas (Blytheville, Conway, Fayetteville, Jonesboro and Little Rock). Blurbs from Bill Clinton and Norman Mailer, among others, will boost sales. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The usually smart-mouthed Norman Mailer observes, "How agreeable to read a serious politician's memoir and find it as full of wit, bite, scorn, compassion, and insight as Dale Bumpers himself," so this memoir must be good. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 governorever (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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781557287731
  • Publisher: University of Arkansas Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 293
  • Sales rank: 1,457,807
  • Product dimensions: 9.18 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Dale Bumpers retired from the Senate in 1998 and is currently of counsel at Arent Fox, a law firm based in Washington, D.C. This is his first book.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

He Couldn’t Even Walk

Men in Panama hats and corseted women waving fans provided courtesy of
the local funeral home were still dripping sweat. The odor of
perspiration was pervasive. Most men were in overalls, with the tops of
their cans of Prince Albert cigarette tobacco protruding just above the
pocket in the front bibs. “Rolling your own” cost about one-fourth as
much as Lucky Strikes, Camels, or Chesterfields, the only three brands
known in Charleston. Not one of the Prince Albert smokers knew, or would
have cared had they known, that Prince Albert was the husband of
England’s legendary Queen Victoria.

The crowd, estimated at thirty-five hundred, was accustomed to the
oppressive heat of Arkansas summers, and nothing could dampen their
excitement as they awaited the moment for which they had come. It was
1938, and the worst depression in the nation’s history stubbornly held
on.

My older brother and I stood by my father, who was dressed in his only
summer suit, a seersucker, as he engaged in small talk with friends and
total strangers. Everyone shared one thing in common–they worshiped
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I was twelve.

That FDR’s train would stop in Booneville had been the only topic of
conversation at our house since the first news story two days earlier.
He was on a cross-country political tour, and Booneville had been chosen
as a stop. The purpose of the trip was to endorse Senator Hattie
Caraway, the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, in her
upcoming race for reelection. Dad was determined that his sonswould
actually gaze not just upon a president, which would have been awesome
enough, but upon Franklin Roosevelt, into whose arms we would fly when
we died–or so we had been taught. He was the South’s Messiah. From the
end of the Civil War until FDR became president, the South had been
ignored at best and abused at worst, treated as a conquered nation.
Roosevelt seemed anxious to welcome us back into the Union.

On the night of Roosevelt’s first election, the men in Charleston had
“shot anvils,” which shook the foundation of every house in town. They
used a well-anchored anvil, common in blacksmith shops, placed a bag of
gunpowder on it, and then dropped a heavy metal object on it, causing a
deafening explosion. It was frightening, but exciting, too.

Dad tried mightily during the miserable Depression years to bolster our
self-esteem. One evening as we finished supper (not until my first year
in college did I learn the evening meal was dinner), he pushed his chair
back from the table and announced with obvious satisfaction, “I’m the
luckiest man alive. I’m even better off than Franklin Roosevelt.” The
blasphemy was startling, but then he continued, “Because I have a finer
family than he has.” We almost popped the buttons off our shirts.

We left home two hours early for the twenty-three-mile trip to
Booneville, because only one-third of the highway was paved and the
other two-thirds was either gravel or crushed rock. Automobile trips
were notoriously difficult, and one always had to anticipate a flat tire
or blowout when traveling on such roads, especially the ones with
crushed rock, built by the Works Progress Administration workers. The
WPA was one of the many New Deal programs under which men worked on
public projects for a dollar a day plus commodities, such as cheese and
beans, doled out at the courthouse on Saturdays. Well-to-do critics
labeled it “We Piddle Around.” It was a pittance, but it kept men and
their families from starving.

My father’s decision to leave home early paid off, because we had been
on the rock road less than ten minutes before we suffered a flat tire.
We had a spare, but it, too, was flat and the air came out as fast as we
pumped it in with a hand pump. In those days tires had rubber inner
tubes, and “fixin’” a flat meant finding the leak in the inner tube,
patching it with a “hot patch,” reinserting it into the tire, putting
the tire back on the rim, pumping the tube up with a hand pump, and
praying it would hold till you reached your destination. The normal
method of finding a leak in an inner tube was to submerge the tube in a
vat of water and rotate it till bubbles appeared. We didn’t have water,
so Dad pumped up the inner tube, placed one side of his face to it, and
turned it till he felt air on his face. Then he spat in the general area
till it bubbled. The hot patch held, and we arrived with time to spare.

Cars were scarce then, and far less than 50 percent of families had one,
but the area around the Rock Island train station looked like a crowded
parking lot. Just the sight of so many automobiles signaled that this
was no ordinary event.

Booneville was a city of about twenty-five hundred people, and its
primary source of employment was the Arkansas State Tuberculosis
Sanitorium, located about one mile south of town on a low mountaintop.
TB was an incurable disease, and many people avoided Booneville, though
the local citizens had long since become indifferent to having hundreds
of tuberculosis patients so close by. The sanitorium meant jobs.

Later, as a sixteen-year-old helping my father in his funeral home
business, I once went with him to pick up a corpse at the sanitorium,
and I remember being terrified that I would surely contract the disease
just from handling the body.

At the train station, friends of my father’s greeted him with, “Hi,
Bill,” or, “How are you, Bill?” and, occasionally, from someone he had
grown up with, “Hi, Will.” His name was William Rufus Bumpers, but he
always signed his name W. R. Bumpers. Initials were more prominent and
distinguished. My uncles were L.G. (Glen), G.L. (Leonard), J.J. (Joel),
and S.T. (Sam). My grandfather was R.C. (Rufus Columbus).

We had been waiting a full hour when a train slowly approached in the
distance and people farthest away from the track began to push forward
for a closer view. The excitement was palpable. But the train hardly
slowed as it continued westward. A man standing on the platform of the
last car, looking for all the world like Roosevelt, didn’t even wave as
the train went by. He seemed to be reading a newspaper or document and
ignored the crowd. I was crestfallen and felt terribly cheated. I
couldn’t imagine the president being so indifferent that he wouldn’t
even acknowledge us. He didn’t even smile. But since the crowd stayed
and hardly acknowledged the man, my spirits began to soar again as I
concluded the man was not the president. I have never figured out
whether the first train with an FDR look-alike on the back platform was
intended to foil a possible assassination attempt or whether the
similarity in looks was simply coincidental.

Within five to ten minutes the president’s train came into view, and
there was no mistaking the real thing. Even the engine was festooned
with small American flags. The train slowed to a crawl before it reached
the crowd, and it seemed an agonizing length of time from our first
glimpse till the train finally pulled to a full stop. People pushed and
shoved to get closer, but the shoving didn’t create any hostility or
harsh words. The platform on the last car was covered with red, white,
and blue bunting. The Booneville High School band struck up “Happy Days
Are Here Again,” and I couldn’t have had more goose bumps if the
president had soared in from the cosmos. But soar he did not. Rather, he
laboriously and painstakingly took the three or four steps from the door
of the presidential car to the dais and microphone, holding on to the
arm of his son James. I tugged at my father’s shirtsleeve and whispered:

“Dad, what’s wrong with him?”

“I’ll tell you later,” he said.

Senator Caraway had originally been appointed to succeed her husband,
Thaddeus Caraway, who died in office in November 1931. She had promised
the governor, who had appointed her, that she would not run in 1932, but
she changed her mind, ran, and was elected–mostly thanks to Huey Long,
who stumped the state for her for three days as a repayment for a numberof votes she had cast at his behest.

Roosevelt’s words that day were neither profound nor complicated, but I
vividly remember his opening comments regarding Mt. Magazine, the
highest point in Arkansas, which was in clear view about seven miles to
the east from where we stood. With a wave of his arm toward the
mountain, the president invoked the magnificent Mt. Magazine, which he
described as the highest point between the Rockies and the Alleghenies.
The crowd cheered wildly, as though Mt. Magazine were a product of their
labors and ingenuity. In truth, Roosevelt was repeating a popular
Arkansas myth. The mountain is 2,753 feet high. When I later discovered
there were several mountains taller than Mt. Magazine between the
Rockies and the Alleghenies, the impact was not dissimilar to learning
there was no Santa Claus.

The president’s speech was probably no longer than ten minutes, but I
can think of no ten-minute period in my life more awesome, not because
of his words, but simply because of his presence. He introduced Senator
Caraway fulsomely and told of her unstinting assistance to him and the
nation by supporting his New Deal programs. Actually, Senator Caraway
spent much of her time at her desk reading Zane Grey novels. Her words
were very forgettable.

As the train pulled slowly away, the president remained at the dais,
waving to the cheering crowd until he was a distant, unrecognizable
figure. Nobody saw him being assisted back into his private car. I was
heartsick at the thought that I would never see him again and would
probably never see any president again. But I was also childishly
shattered that he didn’t see me, know me, call my name, or even
acknowledge my father, who had once been a member of the Arkansas State
Legislature, which in my twelve-year-old mind was no small achievement.

I was absorbed in these and other thoughts as we left the paved streets
of Booneville and hit the gravel-and-crushed-stone road for home. It was
sobering and depressing to know that we were now on our way back to the
reality of our drab existence. It was the same depressed feeling I
always had when the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Gem Theater was
over. As the end of the movie would obviously be nearing, I would begin
to dread those final two words the end, knowing the dim theater lights
would soon come on and I would have to leave the make-believe world of
sequin-dressed women and men in tuxedos, attire that not one of us had
ever seen in real life. As we would walk out of the theater, we could
see glimpses of Francis Irby Gwaltney, “Fig” to us, in the projection
booth, rewinding the last reel. He was fifteen. We were an affluent
family compared to Fig’s. His meals were often whatever he could sift
from garbage cans. His father had died when he was a child, and his
mother had become mentally ill following a stroke. Doc Fry, who owned
Doc’s Café and Pool Hall, had been appointed Fig’s guardian, although
nobody knew why.

Poverty is relative. Seated in folding chairs in a little cubbyhole
beside the projection booth were usually three to five blacks. They had
to climb a ladder to get to their segregated seats. Poor as Fig was, the
blacks were poorer.

It was difficult to adjust our eyes to the glare of the bright Saturday
afternoon sun upon leaving the theater and returning to the dusty
streets, seeing pitiful storefronts, dilapidated automobiles, unpainted
houses, and wagons parked in the alleys harnessed to docile teams of
mules–grinding poverty no matter which direction one looked.

The mules and horses were not always so timid or meek. A dog could often
spook them, provoking a dangerous “runaway” when the horses tore loose
from the hitching post and ran amok down the alley and into the streets.
I remember the stark terror I felt when I was running for our front
porch as a runaway team tore through the alley behind Dad’s store,
turned left down the street where we lived, and ran into the sheet iron
building across the street that housed a feed store. Until the building
was demolished years later, a gaping hole in the sheet iron bore
evidence of the wagon tongue where the team had run wildly into the
building.

Gem Theater tickets read, “Adults–15 cents,” “Children–10 cents.” For
ten cents we were provided two hours of absolute euphoria. Even the
“coming attractions” were subjects of much discussion the ensuing week.
It was the greatest bargain ever invented and easily worth the two lawn
mowings it cost.

About ten miles into the trip home from Booneville, and after estimating
the size of the crowd, discussing what people wore, whom we had seen
from Charleston, and other trivia, my father began, “Now, boys, the
reason the president had to hold on to his son getting to the speaker’s
platform is that he can’t walk. He had polio when he was thirty-nine
years old, and he wears steel braces on his legs that weigh twelve
pounds.”

I was deeply saddened to think that this man upon whom I had just gazed,
who I had been taught was a veritable saint, couldn’t even walk or stand
without holding on to someone.

My father went on, “Now, you boys should let that be a lesson to you. If
a man who can’t even walk and carries twelve pounds of steel on his legs
can be president, you boys have good minds and good bodies, and there
isn’t any reason you can’t be president.”

Copyright© 2003 by Dale Bumpers
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