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Lloyd Bentsen; Texas Senator, Vice Presidential Candidate

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006; 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.

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.

Mr. Bentsen compiled a diverse record. He looked after such traditional Texas interests as deregulation of natural gas and state control of offshore oil but also voted to repeal the poll tax, a device used in the South to discourage voting among minorities.

He also proposed using the atomic bomb against principal North Korean cities if North Korea failed to withdraw its troops from South Korea. In later years, with some embarrassment, he recanted that position.

In 1955, bored with politics and finding it difficult to raise a family in Washington on a congressional salary of $12,500 a year, he left Congress against Rayburn's advice.

With substantial backing from his father, Mr. Bentsen eventually became president of Lincoln Consolidated, an insurance and financial holding company in Houston.

In 1970, Mr. Bentsen sold his business for $22 million and declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Johnson, who had recently left the White House, tried to talk him out of it, warning, "I just don't believe you can beat Ralph Yarborough." Yarborough, the Democratic incumbent, was a beloved liberal icon.

Heavily bankrolled by business interests, Mr. Bentsen launched an expensive media campaign that branded the populist incumbent a "dangerous liberal." His TV commercials seemed to hold Yarborough responsible for the anti-Vietnam War mayhem outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Mr. Bentsen won with 53 percent of the vote.

With support from organized labor that November, Mr. Bentsen ran to the right of the Republican candidate, then-Rep. George H.W. Bush. He accused Bush of supporting gun control and a guaranteed annual income for the poor. (The two men actually were quite compatible politically.) In a battle between a Houston insurance millionaire and a Houston oil millionaire, the insurance man prevailed, 53 to 47 percent.

Texas liberals initially scorned Mr. Bentsen as a Tory Democrat -- a Democrat who looked after the interests of wealthy conservatives linked to Texas oil money -- and they hated him for ending the Senate career of Yarborough. But as Democrats of any stripe became an endangered species in the Lone Star State, Mr. Bentsen gradually became more acceptable.

Liberals such as Ann Richards, who would later be elected Texas governor, came to admire his willingness to set aside political differences to build a broad coalition. "Many of us credit Lloyd Bentsen with our success and our inspiration," she said yesterday.

Given his lifelong familiarity with the Valley, he spoke Spanish fluently and had a strong following among South Texas Mexican Americans.

Mr. Bentsen often said his proudest accomplishment in the Senate was pension reform. As a member of the Finance Committee and the Joint Economic Committee, he also believed in using the tax code to provide incentives for a variety of activities -- to save, invest, produce oil and make college loans. It was an idea he shared with President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Bentsen worked closely with President Jimmy Carter to support the controversial Panama Canal treaties in 1978, even though his mail was running 10 to 1 against relinquishing the canal to Panama. He explained that leaders in Central America had told him that defeat of the treaty would give Cuban leader Fidel Castro an issue to use against U.S. interests.

In 1976, Mr. Bentsen made a run for the White House as a "Harry Truman Democrat," but despite spending heavily, his campaign foundered. He also put down a Senate primary challenge by then-Texas A&M University economics professor Phil Gramm, who charged Mr. Bentsen with abandoning his conservative values in a foolish bid for national office. He defeated Gramm by more than 2 to 1. (Gramm decamped to the GOP and was elected to the Senate in 1984.)

As Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, noted, Mr. Bentsen's Texas Democratic party was "a moderate-conservative, business-friendly party." In the Senate, he often voted with Republicans.

In 1986, the Democrats recaptured control of the Senate, and Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.), chairman of the Finance Committee, did not run for reelection. Mr. Bentsen took over the committee and handled a number of major bills. When President George H.W. Bush agreed to a tax increase in 1990, despite an earlier "read my lips" pledge, Mr. Bentsen played a key role in putting the budget package together.

In the Senate, the silver-haired Texan was the consummate insider who knew the tax laws thoroughly. He also had the ear of Wall Street. Although he was sometimes labeled "Loophole Lloyd" for his ability to draft legislation that gave tax benefits to the oil and gas industries, he managed to avoid impropriety over his long career, even during a savings and loan scandal that engulfed several of his Democratic colleagues in the late 1980s.

Perhaps his biggest embarrassment came in 1987 when he decided to charge lobbyists $10,000 for the pleasure of his company at breakfast. Once word got out about the arrangement -- D.C. comic Mark Russell labeled it "Eggs McBentsen" -- he canceled it, refunded the money and conceded that he had made "a doozy" of a mistake.

By the time Dukakis chose Mr. Bentsen as his vice presidential running mate, he had become the most popular politician in Texas.

His merciless put-down of Quayle was not spontaneous. While preparing for the debate, he expressed his frustration with the ability of the Republicans to identify with Democratic heroes and to espouse what sounded like Democratic positions on such issues as the environment. Quayle had alluded to Kennedy on other occasions during the campaign, so Mr. Bentsen was poised to strike.

Although the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket lost the election in a landslide to Bush -- the man Mr. Bentsen had defeated in the 1970 Senate race -- Mr. Bentsen emerged with his political career in the ascendancy. He was widely considered the odds-on favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. But with Bush's popularity soaring in 1991, he decided to stay in the Senate.

Mr. Bentsen retired from the Senate in January 1993 to serve as the 69th secretary of the Treasury from 1993 to 1994. He played a major role in several of President Bill Clinton's most significant achievements in the early years of his presidency, including a budget bill and two trade bills.

One $500 billion measure, passed by the narrowest of margins, reduced the federal deficit. The North American Free Trade Agreement, although controversial, dramatically changed U.S. trade policy with Mexico.

"He was truly pivotal in the length and strength of the economic expansion of the 1990s," said Henry G. Cisneros, a fellow Texan who served as housing secretary during the Clinton administration.

In 1994, Mr. Bentsen released a handwritten letter to Texans, announcing that he and his wife, known as "B.A.," were coming home. "But we really never left Texas," he wrote. "We just visited Washington for a couple of dozen years. I visited the world as Treasury Secretary. No matter where I went, I always came back and told B.A., 'Nothing Beats Texas.' "

He returned to Houston, where he created a billion-dollar private investment firm, but was a regular visitor to the Clinton White House. Something of a father figure to Clinton, he proffered advice not only on economic matters but also on how the president should deal with his impeachment. In 1999, Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Beryl Ann Longino Bentsen, and three children, Lloyd Bentsen III, Lan Bentsen and Tina Bentsen Smith, all of Houston; and eight grandchildren.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company