Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Good Gentleman from Texas

[[O B I T]] * I was saddened to hear about the death this morning of Lloyd Bentsen, the former U.S. senator from Texas who went on to become President Bill Clinton’s first Treasury Secretary. According to the Houston Chronicle, “Bentsen, who represented the state in Congress for 28 years, died at his Houston home ... He had had two strokes in 1998 and other health problems.” The memorably dignified Democrat, who’s also, of course, remembered as Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis’ running mate during the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign, was 85 years old.

Born in Mission, Texas, in 1921, Bentsen graduated from the University of Texas Law School, served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, and then spent six years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1970, he gave up a prosperous midlife career as a Houston businessman in order to run for the U.S. Senate, first achieving an upset victory in the primary against Democratic incumbent Ralph Yarborough, and then winning the general election decisively against a Republican two-term Texas congressman named George H. W. Bush. A supporter of abortion rights and women’s rights in general, as well as an authority on tax, trade, and economic issues, Bentsen put in 22 years in the Senate and became one of its “most respected voices,” as the Chronicle puts it. However, he had higher ambitions. In 1976, he threw his hat tentatively into the ring for the Democratic presidential nomination, but made a bigger mark 12 years later, when he signed on as Dukakis’ vice-presidential pick. His old adversary, the senior George Bush, wound up beating Dukakis by an embarrassing 53 percent-to-45 percent margin, but Bentsen is remembered fondly for his devastating riposte during an October 5, 1988, debate against Bush’s running mate, two-term Indiana senator and former congressman Dan Quayle. In the course of that televised exchange, the younger Quayle, trying to present himself to voters as a credible veep, stated: “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.” After which Bentsen, looking with apparent pity at his rival, retorted: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Bentsen resigned from the Senate in 1993 in order to become Secretary of the Treasury, and he’s widely credited as one of the principal architects of Clinton’s successful program to eliminate the massive federal deficits left behind by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush. However, he stepped down from his Treasury post just shy of two years later, and was succeeded by the even better-remembered Robert Rubin. Bentsen joined a Washington, D.C., law firm, but after suffering massive strokes, was left wheelchair-bound. For his service to the nation, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, America’s highest civilian honor. “Under his leadership in 1993,” President Clinton said in presenting Bentsen with that award, “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.”

Unfortunately, those stable economic times for the United States ended with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a succession of tax cuts for the wealthy passed by George W. Bush, and record-breaking spending by the Republican majorities in Congress, all of which have left the country vulnerable. Still, Bentsen’s calm leadership and manifest gentlemanliness, even in the face of partisan attacks, earned him a rightful place in the history books. Would that more people like Bentsen still held office on Capitol Hill. We could use his sanity in these insane times.

READ MORE:Bentsen Was a Hero to Democrats,” by Carl P. Leubsdorf (Dallas Morning News); “Clinton: Bentsen Had a ‘Massive Impact,’” by Angela K. Brown (AP).

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