Confession is good for the soul, and some 10 years late, Dale Bumpers has tried it.
It was in 1998 that the gentleman from Arkansas delivered his valedictory speech in the United States Senate as he was ending his 24-year career in that chamber. It was an eloquent address (all of Mr. Bumpers's speeches are eloquent) in which he'd quoted Harry Truman about the danger of the country's having a president who lied.
Unfortunate timing. For that was shortly before a retired Sen. Bumpers would return to the Senate to defend Bill Clinton in a presidential impeachment trial against a charge of perjury. The former senator would defend his presidential client by saying, among a great many other things, that lying about marital infidelity shouldn't be taken that seriously.
But in his earlier speech, Dale Bumpers had quoted Mr. Truman directly about the importance of telling the truth. And few people could be as direct as Harry Truman. When the 33rd president of the United States told it with the bark off, the result was a kind of work of art.
Saying it was a Defining Moment in his own life, Sen. Bumpers remembered Harry Truman telling him: "The only time this country ever gets into trouble is when there is some so-and-so in the White House lying to the American people. So, remember, always tell the truth."
The quotation from Mr. Truman remains a jewel a kind of diamond in the rough. Maybe it ought to be carved on a mantel somewhere in the White House. It was a service to posterity for Mr. Bumpers to preserve it. But when I looked for the quote in the official version of his speech in the Congressional Record, there it wasn't.
Not even an ellipsis remained to hint that something was missing from Sen. Bumpers' eloquent address. At least the New York Times's Maureen Dowd left us a clue when she once used those telltale dots to distort the meaning of a quotation from George W. Bush in her column, the better to attack him. Whoever edited Sen. Bumpers' speech didn't do even that. Harry Truman's words had simply disappeared.
It was the kind of omission that would have become the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. In its heyday, the image of a purged commissar might be airbrushed out of an official picture after he'd fallen out of favor. For he'd become an unperson as if he'd never existed.
No big deal. Winston Smith did that kind of thing all day long when he worked in "1984's" Ministry of Truth. Just so, this quote from Harry Truman had become an unquote. As if it had never been uttered. As in "1984," it had been thrown down the memory hole.
When the omission in the Congressional Digest was noted, it was blamed on somebody else somebody unidentified, naturally. It's always somebody else who dunnit.
Could it have been the senator himself who'd erased the quote? Oh, no, "some staff member was cleaning it up," the Hon. Dale Bumpers said at the time. Not that it mattered to him, he added. (Why all this fuss over mere words, after all?)
The senator's loyal staff backed him up: He'd had no role in the deletion, they said. He hadn't even known about it. Investigation closed. The usual, anonymous suspect had been rounded up. All was in order.
Ten years passed. The body had been buried, the questions interred. Any doubts lay a-molderin' in the grave. But somewhere deep, conscience must have stirred. Because the other day, Dale Bumpers fessed up. "Whatever the staff did," he said, "I probably instructed them to do." Because when things were edited out of the official record, the former senator remembers, "I did most of it myself."
I'd suspected as much back then, but wasn't about to say so not without a confession. Call it a hang-up from a brief, inglorious stint as a court reporter long ago for the estimable Columbia Missourian in Harry Truman's home state. I'd also learned by then that you don't fiddle with a direct quote.
Not that Dale Bumpers is sure even now that he did it. "It's been 10 years," he says. "I can't remember what I might have done or said."
Well, sure. There are some things one might not want to remember too clearly.
But now, after a decade, Dale Bumpers has come closer to telling the truth. I bet he feels better.