For Business, Defense and Oil; Tory Texan Bentsen Cut From Mold of LBJ

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 13, 1988

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen is a Texas Tory Democrat, a mainstay of the pro-business, pro-defense, pro-oil wing of the state's party that produced Lyndon B. Johnson, John B. Connally and Robert S. Strauss.

The son of a self-made millionaire, Bentsen will be the most conservative Democratic nominee for vice president or president in a generation.

Bentsen has been a hard-liner since the early years of the Cold War, even suggesting in 1950 that President Harry S Truman threaten North Korea with atomic attack. Bentsen is a supporter of military aid to the contras, the MX missile and the B1 bomber. An avid friend of business, he was perhaps the most important congressional leader in the 1978-81 drive to cut corporate and capital gains tax rates, central elements of what later became known as "Reaganomics."

At the same time, he was one of only seven of 105 southern House members to vote in 1949 to repeal the poll tax. In 1963, a year before Congress prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, Bentsen, then in private business, was the first owner of a major hotel in Houston to voluntarily welcome black customers.

First elected to the Senate by defeating liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Tex.) and then winning a relatively close general election against George Bush, Bentsen has built a powerful political organization in Texas. "There is literally a Bentsen machine in place," a key political aide boasted. In this respect he is similar to Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the man who chose him as his running mate, and who has built an impressive political machine in Massachusetts.

Unlike Dukakis, Bentsen has not devoted his entire adult life to public service. Elected in 1948 to the U.S. House from a heavily Hispanic South Texas congressional district, Bentsen gave up his seat in 1954 to go into business. Taking a $ 7 million loan from his father, he turned the cash into a holding company with real estate, insurance and savings and loan interests worth more than four times the original loan by 1976, a business described by a Houston friend as "a good-sized little financial conglomerate" by Texas standards.

In the Senate, he has risen steadily up the ladder of seniority on the Senate Finance Committee, becoming the panel's chairman when the Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1986. In the tradition of Connally and Strauss, Bentsen has been an unabashed supporter of business, leading battles for accelerated depreciation, higher investment tax credits and lowered capital gains rates. In contrast to Strauss, Connally and Johnson, however, Bentsen has less swagger and a thoughtful, reflective intellect, according to all accounts.

"He was one of the first prime movers in the whole Congress" behind the major, and highly controversial, business tax cuts enacted in 1981 as part of the Reagan administration economic program, said Charls Walker, a business lobbyist and fellow Texan. Walker, a Republican, added, "I've been predicting from day one that if Dukakis was as smart as I thought he was, Bentsen would get" the vice presidential nomination.

A liberal lobbyist who refused to talk on the record said yesterday: "I can't think of anything to say that's useful . . . . I've been joking that I had switched from [Sen.] Sam Nunn [D-Ga.] to Bentsen [as preferred Dukakis running mate] because I wanted Bentsen out of the Senate even more."

When Bentsen conducted a brief bid for the presidency in 1976, he got the active backing of C. William Verity, the man now serving as commerce secretary in the Reagan administration. "To me, he was the best in the Democratic Party and I was happy to help," Verity said yesterday.

Among Senate colleagues and staff aides of varying ideological hues, Bentsen is well-liked, viewed as far more courteous than most politicians to those with lower status.

He is not outgoing, however, and is viewed as a highly reserved politician, especially by Texas standards, with relatively few close friends. In addition, those who know him are often struck by his lack of demonstrativeness, which is often interpreted as a lack of deep enthusiasm despite his willingness to work hard for long hours. He married the former Beryl Ann Longino of Lufkin, Tex., in 1943, and they have two sons and a daughter. He is 6 feet 2 and physically fit as an aggressive tennis player at 67.

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