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