Sen. Bentsen: Courtly, Calculating Son of Texas

George Lardner Jr. and Charles R. Babcock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 29, 1988

The evening after Sen. Ralph Yarborough (Tex.) was defeated in a bitter Democratic primary in 1970, his finance chairman and close friend, Bernard Rapoport, heard a knock on the door of his house in Waco.

An amazed Rapoport found Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr., the hated Democratic conservative who had bludgeoned Yarborough into lame-duck status, at the threshold.

"There were no preliminary phone calls or anything," Rapoport, an insurance executive, recalled. "But I recognized him immediately. He said, 'Could a guy get a drink of scotch?' Or maybe it was a cup of coffee. The enemy had walked to the door!"

It was a Sunday, but Lloyd Bentsen, consensus builder, was hard at work. Angry Yarborough supporters already were talking of organizing a "Democratic Rebuilding Committee" to support Republican nominee George Bush in the fall. But they would need help from Rapoport, a big contributor to liberal causes, to have much of an impact. And that help never came.

"We talked about the insurance business for a while, then about the kind of world we wanted," Rapoport said. "Truthfully, I was very surprised. He had social sensitivities I wasn't aware he had . . . . He and I became very good friends."

Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee, has a habit of forging unexpected alliances that work to his advantage. An aide once called him a "Lyndon Johnson with couth." He likes high-priced wines and $ 700 suits. His patrician demeanor masks the fact that he is a brilliant organizer, a shrewd businessman and a calculating politician who took lessons from legendary pros such as LBJ and House Speaker Sam Rayburn.

Dealing with money successfully is another of Bentsen's traits, one that he seems to have acquired from his father, a smooth-talking land salesman who got married with $ 1.50 in his pocket and built it into a South Texas empire estimated to be worth up to $ 100 million.

Bentsen was elected to the House in 1948 and then quit in 1954 to make his fortune, with a few million dollars in seed money from his father and uncle. He ran for the Senate in 1970 only after becoming one of Houston's leading financiers. He is the richest of the four men running for national office in the Nov. 8 election.

Once in the Senate, he immediately sought a seat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee and although frustrated at first, began making his mark as soon as the appointment came through in 1973. He steered long-delayed pension changes into law, an accomplishment he counts as his proudest achievement. He used his position on the Finance Committee and on the Joint Economic Committee to further his ideas about using the tax code to provide incentives for a variety of activities, to save, to invest, to produce oil, even to make college loans. More recently Bentsen played an important role in the enactment of welfare changes and new trade legislation.

At times during his career, Bentsen has been less than fastidious about the appearances of propriety. Though he has had a blind trust for years, ethics experts said he seemed to violate the required arms-length relationship with the trust last year by steering his son to the trustee for an investment from the trust. Soon after he became chairman of the Finance Committee in 1987, Bentsen charged lobbyists $ 10,000 to have breakfast with him once a month. He disbanded the group after it was mocked as "Eggs McBentsen." Even so, his 1988 Senate campaign has raised more than $ 2.3 million from political action committees this election cycle, more than any other senator.

Lloyd Millard Bentsen Jr. was born Feb. 11, 1921, in a small frame house on the edge of the Edinburg Canal a few miles from the Mexican border, the son of an unschooled farm boy from South Dakota who had settled there after World War I. It is still one of the most impoverished areas of the country, a land where migrant laborers toil on great estates.

"My earliest memory is of my father working incredible hours," Bentsen said as he prepared for a campaign swing this month. "The house was on a dirt road -- the Bentsen road -- and it was a combination farm and orchard. My brother, Don, and I would swim in that open canal. We used to do some crazy things there. I remember we used to swim down under the canal gate. Lucky we didn't knock ourselves out."

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© 1988 The Washington Post Company