Lloyd Bentsen

Suave elder of the Democratic party


Lloyd Millard Bentsen, businessman and politician: born Mission, Texas 11 February 1921; Treasury Secretary 1993-94; married 1943 Beryl Ann Longino (two sons, one daughter); died Houston, Texas 23 May 2006.

Lloyd Bentsen was a polished Texan, with the manner of a Southern gentleman and a velvet-suave voice that recalled James Mason. He was also perhaps the most formidable Democratic politician during his party's lost years of the 1980s. Bentsen filled the US vice-presidential slot on the 1988 ticket headed by Michael Dukakis. Had the positions been reversed, not a few think that the Democrats could have prevailed over the uninspiring Republican duo of George Bush and Dan Quayle to recapture the White House.

Quayle indeed was the most spectacular victim of the dry, elegant Bentsen style. Sometimes it was a patrician's self-deprecation; but on this occasion, during that year's televised vice- presidential debate, it was merciless. After Quayle rashly likened his brief Senate experience to that of John F. Kennedy before he became President, Bentsen simply skewered him:

Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

The infinitely adaptable gem of a soundbite entered the language, plagiarised by politicians and talk-show hosts alike. Largely thanks to it, Bentsen was the only protagonist to emerge from a dismal 1988 campaign with his reputation enhanced. In a party generally perceived to have moved too far left, Bentsen stood out for his mix of conservative economic and foreign policy views, with a moderate stance on many social issues. He was not only fluent and telegenic, but also vastly experienced, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and one of the ablest powerbrokers on Capitol Hill. Many thought he would have made a fine President.

But it was too late to seek the supreme prize. In 1988, Bentsen was already the oldest vice-presidential candidate in history and would have been 71 had he run in 1992, three years older than Ronald Reagan when he took office. Probably, too, Bentsen lacked the stomach and stamina for the drag-out fight of a full-scale presidential campaign. He tried just once, in 1976, garnering a paltry few thousand votes and half a dozen convention delegates. "I was right about one thing, a southerner could do it that year," he ruefully reflected, long afterwards. "Just that his name was Carter, not Bentsen."

Lloyd Millard Bentsen Jnr was of Danish immigrant descent, the son of a wealthy rancher in the far south of Texas, close to the Rio Grande border with Mexico. He attended rural grade school, where he learnt fluent Spanish, before moving on to high school and then the University of Texas. Immediately after taking a law degree in 1942 he enlisted, and was sent to join a bomber squadron in Europe where he was not only the youngest pilot but also twice shot down and decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

But politics already beckoned. His first elected post was as a county judge in 1946. Two years later he successfully ran for the US Congress, and at a tender 27 became the youngest member of the house. Sometimes impetuosity overcame his judgement, as when Bentsen called for the use of the atom bomb in Korea. But on social issues he was liberal by Southern standards of the time. Most important he was a talented legislator, a natural dealmaker and leader, singled out by the legendary Sam Rayburn as a possible future Speaker.

First, however, Bentsen wanted to make a Texas-sized fortune. After just three terms, he resigned his seat and set up a financial services group. Helped by a $5m loan from his father, Bentsen quickly succeeded, creating the Houston-based Lincoln Consolidated. Within a decade he was eyeing politics again - this time, the Texas Senate seat held by the liberal Ralph Yarborough, detested by the mainstream state Democratic party. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson, fellow Texan and president, managed to stay Bentsen's hand. But by the next time around, in 1970, Johnson had retired and Bentsen was not to be denied. After defeating Yarborough in the primary, he won the general election with 54 per cent to 46 over a Republican Congressman named George H.W. Bush.

Until his defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992, it was the only election the future 41st President ever lost. In the Senate Bentsen soon became a power, above all via the tax-writing Finance Committee, of which he became chairman in 1986. Naturally he looked after his own, in this case the Texas oil and gas industry - and so successfully that he became known as "Loophole Lloyd". Those years produced another classic Bentsen line, apropos of tax breaks and the runaway Reagan-era budget deficits: "A billion here and a billion there," he mused, "and pretty soon you're talking real money."

After the 1988 campaign Bentsen's prestige was at its zenith, and it was no surprise when Clinton picked him as his Treasury Secretary in December 1992. In the chaotic early Clinton White House, he stood out like an elder of Zion among the hyperactive, pizza-guzzling young aides scurrying around the Oval Office.

His experience was as reassuring to the financial markets as it was to Capitol Hill. Bentsen was one of the few who could tell Clinton to his face to slow down:

Mr President, you can't make every decision. You've got to delegate more. I watch your eyes fog over. You're gone. It's because you're tired. You think you can go without sleep. You can't.

But his advice was not always heeded - notably when he warned the Clintons that their healthcare bill had no chance on Capitol Hill. Instead they pressed on, to the inevitable and comprehensive defeat.

By December 1994, Bentsen too had had enough. His two-year stint was on balance a success, highlighted by the passage of the $500bn deficit-reduction bill of 1993, which helped consolidate the longest post-war economic expansion in the US, and the Nafta trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. Both reflected Bentsen's instinctive market liberalism, and his dislike of deficits.

In 1995, at the age of 73, he returned to his native state, not least to spend more time with his six grandchildren, but continued in various business posts, including that of chairman of the London-based New Holland farm machinery group. In the US, however, he will be best remembered as a man who, had he been a decade younger, might have been President.

Rupert Cornwell

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable