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Former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen dies at 85

Former U.S. senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen has died, family members said Tuesday.
Governor Michael Dukakis and Running with Lloyd Bentsen
Then Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, right, stands with Michael Dukakis on July 7, 1988, as Dukakis announces Bentsen will be his running mate for the White House.David Skerry / Corbis file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a courtly Texan who as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 1988 famously told rival Dan Quayle he was “no Jack Kennedy,” died Tuesday. He was 85.

Bentsen, who represented the state in Congress for 28 years, died at his Houston home, his family said. He had had two strokes in 1998 and other health problems.

Bentsen’s distinguished political career took him from the humble beginnings of a county office in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1940s to six years in the U.S. House, 22 in the Senate and two as President Clinton’s first treasury secretary, when he was instrumental in directing the administration’s economic policy.

National ambitions led him to seek the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, a race he quickly abandoned after gaining little support. Returning his attention to the Senate, Bentsen cemented his expertise in tax, trade and economic issues as well as foreign affairs.

By 1988, Bentsen was one of the Senate’s most respected voices. That year, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis tapped the elder statesman as his running mate. As the GOP nominee, Vice President George H.W. Bush chose Quayle, a second-term Indiana senator and former congressman, as his running-mate.

The Quayle debate
In the Oct. 5, 1988, vice presidential debate, Quayle said: “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.”

Bentsen’s retort in the televised event caused a sensation. “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy,” he said. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

But the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket went down hard, losing 40 states — including Texas — to the Bush-Quayle team.

A shrewd legislative operator, the silver-haired politician maneuvered with ease in Democratic and Republican circles alike on Capitol Hill, crafting deals behind the scenes in a dispassionate, reserved fashion.

Chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee for six years, Bentsen was a solidly pro-business Democrat who compiled a record as a staunch advocate of international trade and protector of the oil and gas industry.

Former Rep. Ken Bentsen described his uncle’s life as incredible and said he insisted on maintaining some sort of public life despite his health problems.

“I know the strokes drove him straight up the wall,” the younger Bentsen said Tuesday. “But he kept appearing at events. It was hard on my aunt, and hard on him, but it was that important to him.”

Praise from colleagues
Leaders from both parties hailed Bentsen on Tuesday.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Republican elected to finish his Senate term when Bentsen joined the Cabinet in 1993, said he had been kind to her at the time and called “a great Texan who served our nation admirably.”

Former Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, said, “Many of us credit Lloyd Bentsen with our success and our inspiration.”

The scion of a wealthy Rio Grande Valley family, Bentsen first distinguished himself in World War II, where he flew 50 bomber missions over Europe. Returning home as a decorated veteran, the 25-year-old was elected Hidalgo County judge in 1946. Two years later, he moved to the House.

In his first House term, Bentsen was one of a handful of Southern congressmen voting against the poll tax, which was used to keep blacks from voting.

Despite the prediction of one of his mentors, legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, that he, too, could one day become speaker, Bentsen decided not to seek re-election in 1954. Instead, he opted to return to private life in Houston and build his own fortune, using several million dollars in seed money from his family.

Flush with corporate success, the millionaire felt the call of politics anew and decided in 1970 to challenge liberal Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough. After winning a bitter primary, Bentsen went on to defeat his Republican rival, then-Congressman Bush, for the first of four Senate terms.

Lobbying scandal
The moderate-to-conservative Democrat, who preferred to work away from the limelight, quickly built a reputation as a bipartisan coalition builder.

In a career of many successes, the cautious Bentsen had few missteps.

The most prominent was in 1987 when it became known that the newly installed chairman of the Senate Finance Committee had solicited $10,000 campaign contributions from lobbyists in exchange for once-a-month breakfasts with him. He quickly disbanded the breakfast club, derisively referred to by critics as “Eggs McBentsen,” returned the money and apologized for a “doozy” of a mistake.

Less than a month into his two-year tenure at Treasury, Bentsen was forced to deal with a botched raid of the Branch Davidian complex outside Waco, Texas, by Treasury’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He also faced questions about Treasury’s supervisory role in handling a failed Arkansas savings and loan involved in the Whitewater investigation.

The setbacks were offset by the high marks Bentsen won for his smooth dealings with Congress.

In joining Clinton’s new Cabinet, the Democrat brought with him the respect he’d earned on Capitol Hill and Wall Street. Sure-footed in articulating economic policy, Bentsen was one of the architects of Clinton’s deficit-reduction program and also won plaudits for deft coordination of international economic issues.

When Bentsen announced his retirement, Clinton said: “By any stead, he ranks as one of the outstanding economic policymakers in this country since World War II.”

Last role at law firm
After his retirement, Bentsen, long one of the wise old men of the Democratic Party, continued discreetly dispensing political advice even after he left public office for his final career as a rainmaker for the powerful Washington law firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand.

Bentsen was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1999 by Clinton. “Under his leadership in 1993, when some of the rest of us had our doubts, we passed the economic plan that paved the way for what is now the longest peacetime expansion in our history,” Clinton said.

Bentsen is survived by his wife, Beryl Ann; two sons; a daughter; and eight grandchildren.