Ex-senator, treasury chief Bentsen, 85, dies

May 24, 2006|By DENNIS MCLELLAN | DENNIS MCLELLAN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Lloyd Bentsen, the former four-term U.S. senator who was the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee and served as President Bill Clinton's first secretary of the treasury, died yesterday. He was 85.

Mr. Bentsen, who had been in ill health since suffering two strokes in 1998, died at his home in Houston, a family spokesman said.

In a statement yesterday, President Bush called Mr. Bentsen "a man of great honor and distinction."

During his 22 years in the Senate, the tall, courtly millionaire was known for his generally conservative voting record on foreign policy and economic issues while maintaining a more moderate position on many social issues.

But Mr. Bentsen, who was chosen by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to be his presidential running mate, may be best remembered for his retort to Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana in the 1988 vice presidential debate.

In the nationally televised debate between the 67-year-old Mr. Bentsen and the 41-year-old Republican vice presidential nominee, Mr. Quayle said that he had "as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."

Mr. Bentsen's response to Mr. Quayle's statement resulted in the 90-minute debate's most dramatic - and enduringly memorable - moment.

"Senator," Mr. Bentsen said in a somber tone, glaring at Mr. Quayle, "I knew Jack Kennedy. I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, said Mr. Bentsen's memorable comment was "handled in a way that, despite it clearly being a put-down, he delivered it with a certain amount of gravitas, which is characteristic of the man."

Mr. Bentsen, who also was known as a bipartisan coalition builder and one of the most influential legislators in Washington, chaired the Senate Finance Committee from 1987 to 1992. He capped his long career in politics by serving as Mr. Clinton's treasury secretary from 1993 to 1994.

In a joint statement yesterday, Mr. Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said of Mr. Bentsen: "His leadership was critical to the development and passage of our economic plan, and he deserves much credit for the prosperity, fiscal responsibility and poverty reduction it produced."

In 1999, Mr. Clinton presented Mr. Bentsen with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

"Historians will see Lloyd Bentsen as a moderate, national Democrat in the tradition of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson," Patrick Cox, associate director of the Center for American History at the University of Texas, said yesterday.

Mr. Bentsen, he said, "successfully confounded both admirers and critics as he followed both a conservative and progressive agenda, often seeking to find consensus to issues that challenged the nation."

Lloyd Millard Bentsen Jr. was born Feb. 11, 1921, in Mission, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, where his father built the family fortune through citrus farming and real estate investing.

In 1942, after earning his law degree from the University of Texas, he enlisted in the Army.

As a pilot, he flew combat missions in Europe, where he was shot down twice and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.

He married Beryl Ann "B.A." Longino, a former University of Texas student who became a New York fashion model, in 1943.

Returning home after the war, Mr. Bentsen launched his political career. He was elected Hidalgo County judge in 1946 and two years later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, at 27 its youngest member.

By 1953, Mr. Bentsen was finding it difficult to support his wife and three children on his congressional salary of $12,500 a year and did not run for re-election.

With a reported $5 million start-up loan from his father and uncle, Mr. Bentsen began a life insurance company in Houston in 1955. By 1967, Consolidated American Life Insurance Co. and other Bentsen ventures were melded into a holding company called Lincoln Consolidated Inc.

In 1970, he re-entered politics by challenging liberal Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough.

"I decided I wanted to do something more with my life, to be remembered for something more than my financial statement," Mr. Bentsen said at the time.

After beating Mr. Yarborough in a bruising primary, Mr. Bentsen defeated his Republican rival, Rep. George Bush.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three children and eight grandchildren.

Dennis McLellan writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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