May 23, 2006
RIP, Lloyd Bentsen

Former Senator and Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen has died at the age of 85.

Bentsen, in failing health for more than a decade after a stroke in 1995, died at his home in Houston, said family spokesman Bill Maddox.


On the state political stage for almost half a century, Bentsen was a link to the heyday of Texas Democratic politics, when the regular wing of the state party was the fiefdom of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Bentsen's most influential early mentor.

Although Bentsen helped Johnson in the 1950s to fend off a conservative challenge for control of the party, Bentsen gained his own first statewide victory in 1970 by defeating Texas' reigning liberal icon, Sen. Ralph W. Yarborough, in the Democratic primary. In the general election that year, Bentsen beat Republican George Bush, delaying his fellow Houstonian's national political ascent.

True to his Tory Democratic roots, Bentsen was an unabashed advocate of his state's oil industry and an early proponent of cutting corporate and capital gain tax rates.

I've noted before that Bentsen was not exactly a hero to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. This is not to say that there wasn't much to like about the man. There was plenty to like, but he was what he was.

Bentsen, however, could pull laurels even from the ashes, and he enhanced his standing as an astute politician in 1988 as the dogged Democratic vice-presidential running mate of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

In the vice-presidential debate that year, Bentsen hammered Republican Sen. Dan Quayle, with an artful putdown that found its way into everyday speech.

When his younger opponent compared himself to President John F. Kennedy, Bentsen, his voice dripping with disdain, retorted: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

Among the things that there were to like about Lloyd Bentsen, this would be at or near the top of the list. That quote gives him immortality.

When Clinton was elected in 1992, he asked Bentsen to become his Treasury secretary. Some presidential aides indicated the move was principally to get Bentsen out of the Senate — and the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, a position from which Bentsen could have blocked some of the new Democratic leader's more liberal economic proposals.

Many intimates believed that not long after arriving at the neo-classical Treasury Building next door to the White House, Bentsen wished he had never left Capitol Hill.

Easily the worst aspect of Bentsen's ascension to Treasury was the loss of his Senate seat to Kay Bailey Hutchison. I've no doubt that he would have won re-election in 1994 - hell, he probably would have been only nominally challenged. That most likely would have merely delayed the inevitable in Texas, but who knows? Maybe if he'd been around to campaign for the statewide ticket in 1998, John Sharp would have beaten Rick Perry for the Lt. Gov. job, and Paul Hobby would have held off Carole Keeton Strayhorn Rylander for Comptroller. Imagine what the political landscape might look like now if that had happened. Ah, well.

Rest in peace, Lloyd Bentsen. Greg has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 23, 2006 to National news | TrackBack

I don't really think the political landscape in Texas would have changed much had Bentsen stayed in the Senate.

He, like many of the prominent Texas Democrats of his day, had little in common with Democrats on the coasts. And even before most Southern Democrats stopped ignoring the FDR-era party flip-flop, got past their resentment of the War of Northern Aggression (Civil War for you yankees) and admitted they were more like Republicans, they often voted with Republicans.

Reagan had a few "working majorities" in the Senate even though he only had an actual majority for two years. That's because he had enough votes from southern Dems to carry the day.

So it might have prevented more defections to the GOP at the time...but I don't think it would have substantially changed the course of policy. Bentsen, like many other prominent southern Democratic senators of the last 2-3 decades, was more conservative than many northeastern and some California Republicans.

Posted by: Tim on May 24, 2006 8:07 AM