Cover image for The best lawyer in a one-lawyer town : a memoir
The best lawyer in a one-lawyer town : a memoir
Bumpers, Dale.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2003]

Physical Description:
293 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E840.8.B84 A3 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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If Frank McCourt had grown up in Depression-era Arkansas, he might write like Dale Bumpers, one of the most colorful and entertaining politicians in recent American history: Atticus Finch with a sense of humor. In The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town, Bumpers tells the story of his remarkable journey from poverty to political legend, and the result is a great American memoir that is already attracting wide acclaim for its clever Southern charm: "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 "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 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 "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 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.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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 sons would 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." Excerpted from The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town by Dale Bumpers All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.