Lloyd Bentsen; Texas Senator, Vice Presidential Candidate

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006; Page B06

Lloyd Bentsen was a U.S. senator and a Treasury secretary, but the Texas Democrat will always be remembered for a polemical flick of steel that drew blood in a 1988 vice presidential debate.

Mr. Bentsen, 85, who died at his Houston home May 23 of complications of a stroke suffered in 1999, held positions of power and influence for more than a half-century.

VIDEO | Bentsen's 1988 Debate With Dan Quayle

However, one moment on national television with his vice presidential opponent, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, may have brought him his greatest fame.

During the debate in Omaha, the tall, patrician Texan countered the young Republican senator's self-comparison to John F. Kennedy with the withering rebuttal, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Mr. Bentsen was on the Democratic ticket in part because his Washington credentials buttressed the Washington inexperience of Michael S. Dukakis, the then-Massachusetts governor at the top of the ticket.

Dukakis and party operatives believed that Mr. Bentsen's Southwestern roots, his experience in business and his service on the Senate Finance Committee would be assets. Most important, he gave the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket a shot at Texas's 29 electoral votes.

Despite those attributes and a stellar Bentsen performance on the campaign trail, the Democratic ticket carried only the District and nine states in 1988, Texas not among them. Mr. Bentsen was reelected to the Senate by the biggest margin of his long career and stayed until 1992, after which he became secretary of the Treasury.

Lloyd Millard Bentsen Jr. was born Feb. 11, 1921, in Mission, Tex., in a small frame house a few miles from the Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley. His grandfather had immigrated to South Dakota from Denmark, and after World War I, the Bentsen family moved to "the Valley," as Texans know the border region along the lower reaches of the Rio Grande.

Until the end of the 19th century, the Valley was semidesert ranchland. The Bentsen family arrived penniless, but within a few years, Lloyd Sr., known as "Big Lloyd," and his brother Elmer had become the biggest colonizers and developers in Hidalgo County. The Valley became a cotton- and citrus-growing area, and the Bentsen family's Pride O Texas citrus operation thrived. The family's Arrowhead Ranch was one of the Valley's largest.

Mr. Bentsen received a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1942 and served as an Army Air Forces bomber pilot in World II, flying 35 missions in B-24s from southern Italy. Shot down twice, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and four awards of the Air Medal.

After the war, Mr. Bentsen returned to the Rio Grande Valley and at age 25 was elected Hidalgo County judge, in Texas a position akin to county supervisor. He ran for Congress in 1948 and won easily.

The youngest member of the House at 27, he quickly joined the inner circle of Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.), whom he considered his mentor. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.), the powerful Senate majority leader who went on to become president, also cultivated the young congressman.


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