Bentsen Cast Bush in 1970 As Too Liberal
Saturday, July 16, 1988; 12:00 AM
The last time Lloyd Bentsen and George Bush faced off in a political campaign, Bentsen ran as the true Texas conservative, attacking Bush for supporting gun-control laws and a guaranteed annual income for the poor.
Bentsen, then relatively unknown, won that 1970 Senate race by running against the "Washington Republican establishment" in a state where Democrats enjoyed a 4-to-1 registration advantage -- a margin that has since narrowed considerably -- and which was still largely a one-party Democratic state.
It was a bland race with few ideological overtones. Both candidates, conservative Houston millionaires, supported then-President Richard M. Nixon's Vietnam policies, heavy defense spending, school prayer, Nixon's Supreme Court nominees Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell and opposed busing and campus protesters. Political observers in Washington and Texas remember that campaign only vaguely.
But they do remember the exceptionally bitter Democratic primary between Bentsen, then a champion of the conservative Democratic establishment, and Sen. Ralph Yarborough, hero of the liberals, who had beaten Bush easily six years earlier.
It was a "nasty and mean-spirited campaign," recalled Ronnie Dugger, former publisher of the liberal Texas Observer and a Yarborough supporter. Bentsen's television ads portrayed Yarborough as a "wild, liberal, integrationist peacenik," Dugger said. "It was an early example of assassination by television. Although we're used to it now, it was really shocking in 1970."
Bentsen attacked Yarborough's dovish views on the Vietnam war and questioned his loyalty to the South for opposing the Haynsworth and Carswell nominations. He accused Yarborough of advocating busing for school integration and highlighted Yarborough's position in support of the Supreme Court's rulings against teacher-led prayer in the public schools. He linked Yarborough to "ultraliberal" groups, including those involved in violence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
Enraged liberals threatened to bolt to Bush, then a member of the House, on the grounds that it would serve the liberal cause in Texas better if the conservative wing of the Democratic Party lost the election.
They formed the Democratic Rebuilding Committee. State Rep. Curtis Graves, a black leader from Houston, was quoted as saying: "Comb down George Wallace's cowlick and put him in a $ 200 suit and you've got Lloyd Bentsen."
Many liberals have since forgiven Bentsen, especially because he has helped a lot of them, including state Agriculture Secretary Jim Hightower and state Treasurer Ann Richards, raise money they needed to win their own elections.
Former congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) recalled that Bentsen's nomination did not "make me feel like I wanted to vote." But Jordan said that "even though he does not go down well with long-term, hardline liberal Democrats, he can be swallowed and is swallowed by them."
Yarborough has not forgotten or forgiven. Now living in Austin, he said in a recent interview that Bentsen's television ads showed students rioting and marching under the Viet Cong flag. "He would say, 'There's Yarborough marching with 'em under the Viet Cong flag.' . . . He's just a damned liar."
John Mobley, Bentsen's 1970 state campaign chairman, defended the ads. Yarborough "was part of the [Eugene] McCarthy group," opposing the Vietnam war. "That's where we put him, and that's where he was."