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
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor