Remembering Lloyd Bentsen a Different Way

When Lloyd Bentsen died last week at age 85, newspapers (and people in general) almost universally commenced their remembrance of the former Democratic senator from Texas (1970-93) and 1988 Democratic vice-presidential nominee for his famous put-down of opponent Dan Quayle in their withering televised debate of ’88.

“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen shot back at Quayle when the Republican candidate (who was elected vice president later that year on the same ticket with old Bentsen nemesis George H.W. Bush) likened (accurately) his experience in Congress to those of JFK when he was elected president.

Like Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” riposte from his 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter, Bentsen’s salvo is one of the most memorable lines to come out of a national political debate. But it is almost sad that Bentsen’s words from ’88 were so prominently lionized in the tributes at his passing that other memorable things he said were blithefully overlooked or mentioned in passing.

On July 12, freshman Rep. Bentsen drew cheers in the U.S. House when he proposed that President Harry Truman advise the North Koreans to withdraw from South Korea in one week or have their cities atom-bombed. The pencil-thin Democrat from Mission, Tex., then went out to the Capitol steps and repeated his call to a waiting cameraman from Movietone Newsreel (the film of which was featured in the hit film “Atomic Café” in the early 1980’).

After serving with valor in the Army Air Corps in World War II, Bentsen came home, was elected county judge at age 25, and congressman at 27 (the youngest House member in the class that came in with Harry Truman’s upset win in 1948). Bentsen freely admitted that he cribbed his campaign slogan (“The New Generation Offers a New Leader”) from another young Democrat who was elected to the House from Massachusetts two years before. His name was Jack Kennedy. Later Bentsen showed colleague Kennedy his brochure and the Bay State lawmaker was amused. He invited Bentsen to his 1953 wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier but the Texan was unable to attend.

Today, it is not uncommon to find House members growing frustrated over the level of pay and retiring at a relatively young age to take high-paying private sector jobs. In 1954, it was almost unheard of. But the 33-year-old Bentsen did just that. The pay in Congress was not enough for the father of three with two residences, so he announced he was retiring after three terms. He moved to Houston and took over the Lincoln Consolidated holding company, which oversaw oil and insurance interests. By 1970, Bentsen was a millionaire many times over and ready to re-enter politics.

In his autobiography, former Texas Gov. John B. Connally proudly recalls how he encouraged Bentsen to challenge liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough for renomination in the Democratic primary in ’70 and helped craft his strategy.

After 13 years in the Senate, Yarborough had compiled a decidedly left-of-center record that had made him the arch-enemy of Lone Star State conservative Democrats such as Connally. Bentsen hit that hard—running television spots linking the senator to anti-war demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 (the name for this particular spot crafted by the Rizes Dyke firm was “violence”) and suggesting that Vietnam “dove” Yarborough was responsible for the violence. Bentsen also slammed Yarborough for his votes against President Richard Nixon’s two unsuccessful nominees to the Supreme Court (both of whom were from the South). When Maine senator and 1968 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Ed Muskie came to Texas to campaign for friend Yarborough, Bentsen branded him an “ultraliberal outsider.”  Bentsen also attacked Yarborough for votes against school prayer amendments, support of school busing, and as a “champion big spender.”

It worked. With big money flowing in from Dallas and Houston, he rolled up 53% of the vote and ended Yarborough’s career. The dramatic primary results forced the Republican nominee and White House favorite, Rep. George H.W. Bush, to change strategy. Bush, who had run a strong race against Yarborough in 1964, planned to paint the senator as a liberal—in effect, to use the strategy that Bentsen had successfully deployed in the primary. But now he faced Bentsen and found himself trying to court old Yarborough supporters (the senator never endorsed Bentsen and praised Republican Bush on the Senate floor) and the state AFL-CIO (which wouldn’t endorse the Democratic nominee). Bentsen, in turn, called for an end to the Vietnam War, denounced the Nixon economic policies, and called for huge federal spending for education and welfare—an “about face on all the things which Bentsen spots called ‘un-Texan’ just a few weeks ago,” according to the liberal Texas Observer.

Lyndon Johnson, almost an exile in Texas after leaving the presidency, was still revered in his home state and campaigned for old friend Bentsen. Despite a superior funding edge and appearances from Nixon and Vice President Agnew, Bush lost by a margin of 53% to 47%. Bush campaign manager Marvin Collins and eldest son George W. Bush got drunk that night.

Agnew claimed after the election that Bentsen’s election over his friend Bush was a gain for conservatives in the Senate. At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last week, veteran Dallas Morning News Bureau Chief Carl Leubsdorf recalled covering the ’70 Senate race. “Lloyd Bentsen ran as a moderate and voted that way,” he recalled, “That talk from Agnew that he was really a conservative was crap.”

The rest, as they say, is history.