The Unveiling of Lloyd Bentsen
Portrait of the presidential candidate, running hard.
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Bentsen? Oh, hell yes, we just cut him from 7-to-l to 4-to-l. He’s strong, Bentsen, I think he’s projecting more’n the other guys. He ain’t even a dark horse no more. We got him second behind Scoop, Scoop’s 2-to-l. But hell, it’s just such a wide-open field, ya know? —Jimmy the Greek
The sun languishes out on the wingtip, like a beach ball on a diving board, preparing to drop timidly into the muddled trough of America. The Senator gazes tiredly through the port window, absently massaging a shoeless foot while savoring the rare—increasingly rare—respite of privacy, when the Reporter mumbles yet another question at him.
“Accident, hell!” exclaims the Senator, coming alive. “He shot into the water about three feet from my knee! He did it on purpose, as ‘a warning.’” He smiles, his mind arching back to the dim, nearly forgotten incident. “What happened is we were goose-hunting in the arroyo—it was all swamps and marshes—and without knowing it we wandered over onto King Ranch property.”
“Was he a state game warden, or did he work for the King Ranch?” asks the Reporter, pursuing the question.
“Oh, I’m sure he was licensed by the state, but he was working for the King Ranch,” answers the Senator, laughing to himself and shaking his head. The question had opened a drawer in the dusty corners of his memory, one he hadn’t looked through for a long time.
It was a softball question, more petty curiosity than serious inquiry, a byproduct of research into the Senator’s past: a small yellow newspaper clip, a quarter-century old and three sentences long, to the effect that an unnamed game warden had been mildly reprimanded for “accidently” shooting at young congressman-elect Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr.
The Reporter knew the question was Trivial, unlikely to produce much, but he asked it to relieve the tension. For more than two hours now, almost from the minute they were airborne out of Miami, and all through the First Class dinner of short-ribs and white wine, the Reporter had plied Bentsen with questions, most of them hardball. Occasionally, when the interview seemed to get too aggressive or trespass personal regions, Bentsen would tighten up and withdraw, and a couple of times he got a little testy. There were lapses into silence, and devotion to the short-ribs, and small talk, and then more questions.
This sufferance of casual intruders who want to rummage through one’s motives, convictions, principles, to shake them out and examine them, is one of the burdens, perhaps duties, of public office. Bentsen, even more so than most politicians, is uncomfortable with it, resists it, probably resents it.
He’s a very private man, insulated and self-contained, and unaccustomed to permitting the random exploration of his psyche. He’s been called all the things such men are always called: cold, aloof, distant, unknowable—a New Hampshire politician has described him as “always surrounded by a glass cage,” and a Texas congressman says of Bentsen, “I don’t know anyone in the delegation he’s really close to, who you could honestly say was his confidant.” A Houston businessman who’s known Bentsen a dozen years, served with him on chamber of commerce and civic committees, actively supported his election, once told the Reporter: “Lloyd’s always been friendly, very friendly, and very gracious, but I just never got the fueling that we were actually, well, friends. You know?”
“He can’t help it,” says a Bentsen staffer, almost apologetically. “He’s just reserved. Stiff. He hasn’t spent twenty years shaking hands in union halls like some of these guys. But he knows it, he’s working on it. You should’ve seen him a year ago.”
The Reporter had seen him a year ago. Indeed, Bentsen has loosened up markedly since then, grown more relaxed and easily affable, learned how to mix with ward-heelers and journalists, discovered how to joke with and flatter them, become, in short, like most other politicians. Still, though, there’s a trace of discomfort, maybe of embarrassment, as if it were all rather bothersome, this business of friendliness. And slightly more than a trace of condescension. If Bentsen is a private man, he is also a very self-assured and secure man, what Shaw described as having “the self-confidence of one who has made money.” He has made money, of course, great bales of it, and was wealthy even before he made any, so he has, undoubtedly, been deferred to much of his life. Like most of Life’s good things, deference is something one gets accustomed to easily. One comes, in fact, to expect it.
But, when he wants, to, Bentsen can present a compelling personality, what Washington columnist Marianne Means likes to call “a style genuinely reminiscent of John Kennedy, minus the Boston accent.” His obvious intelligence yields a quick, facile wit when tilted in that direction, and the self-assurance becomes an unaffected, almost casual grace, with none of the smarmy backslapping camaraderie normally deployed by politicians, notably Texas politicians, as a substitute for personality. This Bentsen presence has proven a bit overwhelming in Washington, where they expect their Texans to wear boots, hats, and no underwear. Bentsen’s even something of a wine adept, capable of discussing the more subtle aspects of obscure vintages, and that really bowls them over.
“He’s an awfully impressive man,” admits a lady lobbyist for Common Cause, an effete Easterner if ever there was one. “But you can’t tell if there’s any depth there, or what’s going on in the back of his mind. He’s sort of like a mirage, you know, very attractive on the outside but you don’t know if there’s any substance to it.”
Interesting metaphor, mirage. The Reporter writes it down.
“…very serious, getting to the point where even middle income people can’t afford to send their children to college…”
Bentsen is talking about some complicated plan or other—has been for some time, in fact—but the Reporter’s mind had wandered.
“…never been able to support savings associations because the people were always so damn poor…”
It’s something to do with the Rio Grande Valley, this scheme, an economic development plan of some sort. Complex sonuvabitch, best the Reporter can make out. Bentsen is punching his finger into the seatback in front of him, rattling along furiously.
“…and you’d want to put a requirement on these thrift institutions that they must invest half their capital assets in home mortgages…”
The Reporter flunked Introductory Economics as a sophomore.
“…otherwise it’s a failure, wage earners must earn enough to have discretionary income with which to save…”
At Texas A&M.
“…shift away from feed grains to these new strains that are adaptable for South Texas, like hegari, for example, which is particularly…”
It occurs to the Reporter that the only times he’s ever seen Bentsen get enthusiastic, animated, really throw some part of himself behind his language, have been at times like this, discussing some tangled economic proposal.
“…and that money would be set aside for the sole purpose of paying for college educations…”
The Reporter hasn’t understood a particle of it, but oddly enough, he’s excited. With rare exceptions, all the politicians the Reporter has ever heard (entirely too many of them for his taste) could plead passionately the why of some (always essential) policy, but would put you to sleep (them, too) on the how of it; Bentsen is exactly the reverse.
And that’s Bentsen’s strong suit, the one he hopes just might make him President. Earlier, he had said: “People forget that the Presidency has a management function as much as anything else. Hell, today that’s probably the most crucial function it has got. And people are getting tired of candidates who just promise this and promise that, and then can’t deliver because they can’t make the damn thing work. They’ve been conned too damn many times. What they want is someone who’s competent, someone who’s capable of making the system work. I want things that work. I don’t want to be for something just because it sounds good. That’s not realistic, it’s not practical.”
Bentsen stresses words like competent, practical, realistic, management, capable, words he thinks characterize him. The Reporter thinks they probably do, but he isn’t quite ready to equate them to the Presidency. The flip sides of those words, after all, are words like singleminded, insensitive, calculating, passionless, mechanical—all adjectives that have been applied to Bentsen in the past, even by his friends. It’s the classic Best and the Brightest dilemma—good management is not necessarily good leadership. Bentsen gives the impression, altogether, of a Robert McNamara, a man who doesn’t find the world a very interesting place unless he has some portion of it to tinker with and organize. The Reporter decides to ask him about it.
Bentsen is staring out the window again, toward the point on the wing lately inhabited by the sun. Clearly played out, his shoes off and tie loosened, he still manages to look dignified—almost too dignified for a politician—with his hair edging faintly around toward smokey gray, and a fine burnished Jamaica suntan. Even the thin upper lip that always looks so awkward in the harsh tones of black-and-white photos appears, in person, somehow distinguished.
“Do you get bored easily?” asks the Reporter.
Bentsen blinks, grins, turns quickly away from the window. Aha, thinks the Reporter, a hit.
“You can’t let yourself get bored,” he answers earnestly. “I always go out and find something, look for something to do.” He looks directly at the Reporter, speaking intently, “You always need something to do.”
Well, he certainly does, seems like, always hungering after some focus for his energy, some task to assault with his ability. Austin Congressman Jake Pickle calls Bentsen “a terrific competitor. Back when the session was just getting started, before there were lots of committee hearings and all that, we used to go down to the gym and play paddle-ball for an hour. We’d run him pretty ragged sometimes but he’d never quit unless he was satisfied with the way he was playing. Sometimes he’d be all red-faced and panting and he’d say ‘C’mon, let’s play another one.’ He wouldn’t give it up till he felt he whipped it.”
He can’t even relax without making it into a contest with himself—the Reporter can’t visualize Bentsen ever being satisfied with himself. He’s already nailed down several lifetimes’ worth of goals—been a Border aristocrat, war hero, judge, congressman, three different kinds of business tycoon—but it’s never been enough; as soon as he felt he had whipped it, he’d be off again, compulsively chasing something else. Always in pursuit, always in transit from the whipped to the unwhipped, always doing and never just being.
When he first came back to Washington as a senator, Bentsen bought a big, expensive house over in Georgetown, the sort of neighborhood fast-moving senators are expected to live in, but he later sold it and moved into the Shoreham West. About a year afterwards he was driving around town one Sunday afternoon with Charlie Wilson, the East Texas congressman, and they went by to see the old Georgetown place. “That house,” he told Wilson, “is the only business deal in my life that I ever lost money on. I just didn’t understand the market up here when we bought it. We were in too much of a hurry.” It still nags at him, the fact that he hadn’t whipped that house.
There aren’t many things you can do with yourself if you start to get bored with being a U.S. Senator. If you’re Harold Hughes, of course, you can take up the ministry, but that’s not exactly Bentsen’s style. He’s not at all coy about what is, though: “There’s a lot more to life than making money. I’ve made money. Now I want to make a contribution to my country, and there’s only one place better than the Senate to do that. Inside the White House.”
“I Remember Him”
Dallas. The florid man comes steaming frantically across the tarmac, in close pursuit, it would appear, of his own outstretched hand. “Hello Senter,” he gasps, pumping Bentsen’s hand. “I’m James McNeese and I just wanted to say I’m expectin’ you t’be the nex’ President.” As befits him and it, Mr. McNeese is a candidate for the Texas Legislature.
In the car, Bentsen passes along McNeese’s name to Bill Wright, one of his traveling aides, who jots it down in a notebook; it will soon join the mushrooming list of 40,000- odd Texas names in the carefully indexed, cross-referenced and color-coded, soon to be computerized, “supporters file.” Wright seems fairly typical of Bentsen’s aides, ambitious, hardworking young men who faithfully patronize tailors and barbers who are meticulous, talented, and unimaginative, much like themselves; if Bentsen represented New York, all his aides would have gone to prep school. Wright begins a methodical briefing on the reception they are about to attend, who is likely to be there and what they represent.
Bentsen has just flown in from San Antonio where this afternoon he addressed some 4000 members of the Texas Association of School Boards—an intelligent, uninspiring explanation of legislation to help equalize public school revenues. He was fulsomely introduced by his old friend, insurance lobbyist Will Davis (former state Democratic Party chairman under John Connally and the current parliamentarian), who had just been elected TASB president. Last night, Bentsen was in Kansas campaigning for Dr. Bill Roy, the Democratic Senate candidate, and Kansas Governor Robert Docking had introduced him, also fulsomely, to a party dinner in Wichita. He’d been at another dinner the night before, in Detroit, at a reception in Flint before that, and then before that he was in South Dakota stumping for George McGovern’s re-election to the Senate.
“Here’s a letter,” says Wright, handing a sheet to Bentsen, “that McKool sent Ford on what he thinks about the economic situation. He’s got five proposals.” Bentsen looks at the letter for about ten seconds, giving no indication of interest and saying nothing. An hour from now, he will spit it back perfectly. “What do you think we should say about McKool?” he asks, handing the letter back to Wright.
A feisty, peppery Irish dynamo, with the size and overall dimensions of a howitzer shell, Mike McKool is the Democratic congressional nominee in Dallas’ 5th District. He is also a labor liberal who has spent much of his career fighting against the very people Bentsen was fighting for. The fact that the two of them are presently converging on the same suite in the Fairmont Hotel—and the correlative facts that McKool would invite him and that Bentsen would accept—are indicative of the Democratic Party’s recently discovered spirit of brotherhood, which spirit is also abundant at McKool’s reception. Assorted Dallas Democrats who in all their lives had never come any closer than adjacent boxes on a primary ballot, are busily backslapping and glad-handing and getting mutually, cheerfully, utterly drunk. Bentsen shakes hands all around, says a few pleasant, complimentary things about McKool, a few more unpleasant, firmly uncomplimentary things about Republicans, and then disappears to an upstairs suite for a private caucus with some Dallas heavies.
The Reporter, meanwhile, wanders through the reception trying to find somebody who might offer a piercing insight or two into the nature of Lloyd Bentsen, his character and personality.
“Well, it goes without saying that he’s extremely sharp, you probably saw that right away,” offers Barefoot Sanders, whose Tom-Sawyer-Grows-Up appearance masks an acute, lawyerly intelligence. When Sanders was the party nominee against Republican Senator John Tower in 1972, he benefitted considerably from Bentsen’s behind-the-scenes assistance, and thus seemed a good prospect for insights about Bentsen. “But I honestly don’t know him very well,” replies Barefoot. “He kind of ran in a different crowd than I did, I guess.”
The Reporter next homes in on Bob Bullock, a definite prospect. Bullock has twenty years invested as a canny infighter in Texas politics—as a legislator, a lobbyist, Preston Smith’s right hand, Texas Secretary of State, a candidate for State Comptroller—and through all those twenty years, carefully and assiduously, he has kept records and files on who he in-fought with, for, and against. “Hell, I don’t know Bentsen, I don’t even know anything about Bentsen,” mutters Bullock. “I don’t even know anybody else who does!”
Neither, it is becoming clear, does the Reporter.
Atlanta. There’s a picture of Bentsen on page two of this morning’s Atlanta Constitution, with a twenty-word caption announcing his arrival and identifying him as “considering” a run at the Democratic nomination. Right next to the picture is an enormous four-column article detailing the “encouraging developments” recently enjoyed by Georgia’s own Governor Jimmy Carter, who is also considering.
Both Bentsen and Carter are “New South Leaders,” an office which is—like the land it leads—an invention of New York journalism; used in a political context, it’s any Southern Democrat who is considered palatable to Northern Democrats. Standards in this regard appear to have been relaxed lately, resulting in a startling proliferation of New South Leaders. No doubt this is because the Democrats are terrified by the thought of George Wallace loosed upon their already defective nominating process, so any housebroken redneck with the slightest capacity for cutting into Wallace’s strength becomes someone deserving aid and assistance.
This can often take the form of appointments to highly prestigious and superfluous positions in the party hierarchy (Carter, for instance, is chairman of the 1974 campaign committee, Bentsen of the Senate campaign committee), plus, of course, elevation to New South Leaderhood, which is now a virtual guarantee of “dark horse” ranking in the nominations line-up (not surprising since dark horses and New South Leaders are certified by the same authority). This policy of generous cross-breeding has built a crowded Southern stable filled, mostly, with horses of absolute Stygian darkness.
Which leads directly back to Jimmy Carter, whose recent “encouraging developments” are that both Morris Dees, the Alabaman who assembled George McGovern’s direct-mail campaign, and an obscure bureaucrat in the Nixon Administration’s drug abuse program have “tentatively agreed” to support him, although Dees seems to be hedging; this entire windfall of encouragement is massively documented in the longest article in today’s Constitution.
“Looks to me like they really had to reach a long way to find something,” mumbles Bentsen, folding up the paper as he steps out of the car.
“Hometown Boy Syndrome,” suggests the Reporter, walking up the steps to WAGA, the Constitution-owned television station.
Atlanta is the second stop in a series of four “debates” that Bentsen is taping with Tennessee Senator Bill Brock, his counterpart at the GOP Senate campaign committee. All follow the standard TV non-debate format, with a rotating four-person panel asking alternate questions of the two “debaters,” and each debate will produce an hour-long tape for national syndication.
“Three minutes till we roll tape!” screams the frantic stage manager. “Everybody please help!” The huge studio is cheerfully chaotic, overrun with journalists and station executives. Julian Bond, the black-activist Georgia state representative scheduled to be a panelist, cancelled five minutes ago, bringing on a desperate search for a suitable replacement. Blithely floating past all the madness is Bill Brock, shaking hands and grinning alarmingly, doing those things most politicians do instinctively.
But not all of them. Bentsen is sitting behind his debater’s table, looking incredibly stern and serious. Concentrating, psyching himself up, like a man about to run the 10,000 meter race; and very, very distant: impenetrable.
The first question is a hand-off—a take-it-and-run question—about what they each think the three uppermost national priorities should be.
Bentsen cites the economic morass and “stagflation” (a newly-minted Democratic Party word meaning a combination recession/inflation), then energy self-reliance, then restoring “sound relationships with our traditional allies,” emphasizing “traditional” several times in an indirect—very indirect—soft jab at the Kissinger detente policies.
Brock is even more indirect, to the extent that he never makes much of a point, rambling on about responsiveness in government and free enterprise (those, as well as can be determined, are his first two priorities) before declaring himself dead set against inflation.
Defying all the laws of forensic gravity, the debate slides irreversibly downhill from this dead-level start. Most of the questions are porous enough to drive whole party platforms through, which is about what the two debaters succeed in doing (without either one mentioning exactly whose platforms they’re at the wheel of). The sharpest query of the day, on national health insurance, draws equally long-winded denunciations of “government control over doctors” and extremely short-breathed avowals of what seemed—in a brief, passing glance—to be very different positions on the issue, but they were lost in verbiage.
Even the worst movie, of course, has its moments, and so does the debate. At one point, Brock is piously maundering on about free enterprise and the need to restore “honest American competition” when he says, apparently, exactly the wrong thing. Bentsen lights up and takes after Brock, talking him back into a deep stuttery corner with a cogent, carefully-reasoned assault on Administration tight-money policies.
“…if we’re going to talk about competition”—Bentsen is leaning hard into Brock—“small businessmen can’t possibly pay interest rates like that…become prisoners, captives of big business because they’re the only ones that can afford to pay…”—Bentsen almost, astonishingly, sounds angry—“conglomerates just absorb them when they can’t meet…”
Bentsen takes the round with a decisive knock-down, his best round of the day. If the debate is viewed from a classical standpoint, it is a sorry mismatch, with Bentsen clearly in a weightier division than Brock. His mind works rapidly, briskly spinning complete, polished sentences that knit together into clear paragraphs, self-contained thoughts all strung in logical sequence and focused toward some definite point—even the enunciation is crisp, precise.
Brock, on the other hand, possesses a wrestler’s mind and a sprinter’s mouth. His sentences quickly outdistance his thought patterns and turn into epic solipsisms, three and four minutes without ever coming to a point or a period, just rambling, backtracking, wandering, contradicting, like a driverless car in a demolition derby. When he finally catches up with it he rescues himself with meaningless bureaucratic jargon and inane clichés—“line-item budget cuts,” “takin’ from the country folk and givin’ to the city folk”—always the safest harbor for leaky minds.
It isn’t, however, a classical head-to-head debate; it’s more of a cross between Meet The Press and The Merv Griffin Show. Which means it’s more of a standoff, with the edge possibly even going to Brock, who comes on like Merv himself: relaxed, personable, slouching into his chair. He speaks in a loose, conversational style, mumbling sometimes and grinning at others, effectively obscuring his mangled syntax and projecting an amiable spontaneity.
Bentsen, though, is a complete failure at Merv Griffin imitations. He seems staged and rigid, as if he were lecturing, and the crispness and precision of his language come across as inauthentic, almost contrived, and he loses the impact of what he’s saying.
The Reporter is reminded of dinner theater productions of Tennessee Williams, of bad acting and brilliant dialogue.
Miami. “Will the escort committee please escort to the platform Senator Lloyd Bentsen, senator from Texas.”
As Bentsen walks onto the stage, most of the 4000 delegates and visitors stand to welcome him, offering polite, subdued applause.
“We haven’t known Senator Bentsen for very long,” the speaker is telling his audience, “but those of us who have had the opportunity to meet with him… true friend of the working man… this year’s important pension reform bill… one of the new leaders of the emerging New South…”
There is a great deal of pomp and ritual at labor gatherings, and the 29th biennial convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) is no exception. Part of the ritual is an etiquette for speech-makers, certain courtesies that are expected from them. Bentsen appears to know it well, observing all the formalities. He prefaces his speech with modest personal tributes to the speaker (Murray Finley, the ACWA president), and as many of the union’s other leaders, past or present, as he knows and feels comfortable enough to name—about half-a-dozen in Bentsen’s case, a respectable number. He then moves on to praise the union and its history, calling it “a progressive union, a compassionate union.”
Deserved praise in this instance. For many unions, the ritual is all that remains of the labor movement and the idealism that once moved it. The ACWA, though, is an old-time union with principles intact, a throwback to the days when unions fought corporations instead of owning them. It would seem a strange audience for a former corporate president.
“My friends in the labor movement,” Bentsen is saying, “I want to talk to you about inflation and the economy… Not since Herbert Hoover have we had an economic policy that has done so much for so few, [pause] and so little for so many…”
A good line, drawing good applause. It’s a strong speech, strongly partisan, the sort of speech Democratic senators are supposed to deliver at union conventions. But it’s not Bentsen’s usual style to be very partisan—or very strong either, for that matter. Like most smart politicians, he works closely on his own speeches, going over a text that’s been written for him and changing it, toning it up or down, fitting it to himself; and his normal inclinations are straightforward, expository, and bland. (“We keep trying to spice them up,” said a Bentsen staffer, “but he keeps taking it out. He just doesn’t feel natural with it.”) Apparently, he decided the ACWA required extra spice, and he appears to be accommodating to it rather easily.
“I remember 90 unparalleled months of prosperity under the last Democratic administration…”
He is delivering it very well. The precise articulation and methodical diction, that came across as staged and stiff in the close range of a TV studio become very effective in the larger context of a public address. Bentsen is a well-paced, rhythmic speaker, with good voice projection and a definite presence. Even the most elastic imagination couldn’t be stretched enough to grant him “charisma,” or even “magnetism,” but he’s nonetheless very solid and impressive. It’s the kind of style politicians used to strive for in the days before television and John Kennedy.
At the end of his speech, Bentsen is given another polite, subdued round of applause, like the one that had greeted him. The ACWA is too sophisticated politically to be overcome with enthusiasm for a politician on the basis of a fiery, rousing oration (and even if they were, Bentsen isn’t the man to give it); they are, rather, close students of voting records, and judge their candidates accordingly.
Earlier in the day, they heard a speech from Walter Mondale, the Minnesota senator who is also a contender for the Democratic nomination (he and Bentsen were the only two invited to speak). In his prefatory remarks, Mondale was able to list three times the number of friends-among-the-leaders, and to relate a personal involvement with the ACWA going back 25 years. He has fought battles for them, even walked picket lines with them, and his consistent liberalism is much closer to their own politics than is Bentsen’s insistent moderation.
Pondering these considerations, and reading into them the obvious likelihood that the ACWA will cast their lot with Mondale, the Reporter decided to inquire of Bentsen: “Just how much good do you figure a speech like this one really does?”
“Well, now they know me,” answered Bentsen. “If there’s a deadlocked convention and people are looking around at candidates they can say, ‘Yeah, I remember him. He came and talked to us.’”
The country down around that last feeble bend in the Rio Grande, misnamed The Valley, must have seemed somewhat discouraging to Danish immigrants Peter and Tina Bentsen back during the First World War: the river was leeched out from its long, sluggish, sun-blasted run; there wasn’t any irrigation to speak of; and the flat ugliness of the country itself was relieved only by patches of scrub oak and mesquite. But the land underneath was good, year-round good, and there weren’t any Blue Northers ripping through their sod walls as had proved so discouraging in South Dakota. So the Bentsens made the sensible decision to gather up the family and move south.
Before long, sons Lloyd and Elmer joined the rest of the family on their ten cleared acres just west of McAllen. The two boys went to work and, in the best Texas tradition, they got rich—hugely rich, probably $50 million apiece rich. They did it in all the usual ways—growing things, raising cattle, finding some oil, building banks, taming the land, selling it off, etc., etc.—and it happened to them largely because they were shrewd, industrious, lucky and smart enough to bring it off.
There are, as might be expected, a sizeable contingent of Valley folk with altogether less generous opinions on how the Bentsen Brothers made their money, some of whom have expressed these opinions in court, regarding supposed land frauds in the 1940s. There are also Chicanos who whisper dark allegations about illegal aliens, bracero strikebreakers, pitiful wages and company stores, and about migrant labor camps with high fences, padlocks and chains.
But all of these calumnies, besides lacking the substantive weight of real evidence, are directed against Lloyd M. Bentsen Sr., not at all the same person as Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr., and there’s an American tradition absolving sons of fathers’ sins. Then too, in strictly political terms, whatever Lloyd Sr.’s accumulated riches and sins might be, they would be paltry if stacked against the awesome rapacity of, say, Edward Kennedy’s father or, worse still, Nelson Rockefeller’s grandfather.
Lloyd Jr., for his part, no doubt has his own fair share of sins to account for, but while those of his father and uncle were (or weren’t) being committed, he was busily overachieving, finishing high school at fifteen with a local reputation as a hot public speaker. He moved along to the University of Texas where he was president of Sigma Nu, the rich boys’ fraternity, graduated from law school in 1942 and straightaway enlisted as a private in the Army Air Corps. Trained as a bomber pilot, he flew 50-odd missions in B-24s over Italy; was shot down twice (once crash-landing on the Isle of Viz, partisan hideaway of Marshall Tito), promoted to colonel and squadron commander, and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was 24.
Before shipping out he’d been held over on the East Coast long enough to marry Beryl Ann (B.A., for short) Longino, a stunning young woman he’d first met at UT, who was then modeling in New York. When Bentsen got back to the Valley, his first-born son (of two), Lloyd III, was waiting. Lloyd Jr. soon claimed his first political victory, getting elected Hidalgo County Judge in 1946; he was 25, the, state’s youngest.
Two years later, he became the nation’s youngest congressman; campaigning on a “Beat the Machine” slogan (in those days, “the machine” meant George Parr and Laredo’s Mannie Raymond), he defeated three opponents to replace the retiring Milton West. In Washington, he joined a lot of other men like himself, ambitious young veterans who beat machines all across the country in the biggest congressional shakedown in a generation. Capitol Hill veterans still regard the post-war Classes of ’46 and ’48 as the great vintage years in modern House history, the ones that first brought to Washington the likes of John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gene McCarthy, Peter Rodino, Abe Ribicoff, and (Bentsen’s next-door office neighbor) Jerry Ford. It says something of Bentsen’s abilities that, the youngest member of an honors class, he was the teacher’s pet and star pupil.
House Speaker Sam Rayburn, always possessed of a sure, uncanny instinct for spotting fast comers (especially, if they were fellow Texans), invited Bentsen to join his Board of Education, the select cronies who met in Rayburn’s small Capitol office to sip bourbon, talk politics, trade stories, and run the government. Its membership included cabinet officers, judges, key committee chairmen from the House and Senate, and, at the time, President Truman. Lloyd Bentsen was the only freshman congressman. There was one freshman senator: Lyndon Johnson, who usually brought along his young administrative assistant, John Connally.
There’s a portrait of Sam Rayburn in Bentsen’s Senate office, the centerpiece (and largest) of an imposing wallful of pictures, and Bentsen speaks warmly, softly, of Rayburn, calls him his “mentor, counselor, and friend.” Most likely Rayburn was a heady influence on the young congressman’s politics, opinions, concepts of government. Rayburn basically saw himself as an instrument of the Congress and (a close second) the Democratic Party, responsible for whipping all those egos and institutions into some sort of workable order, then making them function. His own opinions were malleable, subject to majority will and the forge of experience, his loyalties personal, his energies applied to means and divorced from ends. There’s a bit of all that in Lloyd Bentsen.
It’s likely, too, that Bentsen’s House voting record reflected some of Rayburn. Essentially conservative, it was tugged toward the left on civil rights, on crucial big labor bills, on proven New Deal innovations—all mainline Democratic issues, directly catering to the Roosevelt coalition; without the Democratic anchor, navigating on his own, Bentsen instinctively drifted to the right. All in all, his voting record then is not noticeably different in substance from his voting record now, except that he’s since discarded the youthful arrogance that prompted him to call for A-bombing the North Koreans.
Bob Eckhardt, now a liberal Houston congressman, remembers their first meeting in 1950, when he was a labor lawyer and Bentsen was a freshman: “I was up here to lobby the Texas members for some changes in a labor bill. I was going around to see them and I kept getting the ‘Old Joe’ treatment.” Eckhardt grins. “The ‘Old Joe’ treatment, you know, is where they tell you how good it is to see you, and take you out to eat and drink and show you the town, and never do get around to talking about what it was you came up here to talk about.
“I was about surfeited with Old Joeism by the time I got to Bentsen. He took me right into his office and we spent three hours working over the bill. He had a very quick grasp of the problems involved, which were rather complex as I remember. I was very much impressed by him.”
In early 1952 Bentsen faced the first of two tough, and crucial, decisions over the course of the Texas Democratic party. Incensed by the national Democratic party’s opposition to state control of the tidelands oil pool. Governor Allan Shivers endorsed Eisenhower for President over Stevenson, and convinced most of his Democratic ticketmates to bolt along with him. Up in Washington, where he was the principal advocate for state control, Shivers’ friend Bentsen made disparaging speeches about Adlai Stevenson but stayed hitched; Sam Rayburn had small tolerance for Democratic deserters. The issue, however, was far from dead.
In 1954 Bentsen was being touted as gubernatorial material when he announced other plans entirely: he was quitting politics to go into business. He’d become bored with the lumbering repetition of the House and one thing Lloyd Bentsen doesn’t suffer long is boredom: Less than three weeks after his retirement, the Bentsen family chartered the Consolidated American Life Insurance Co. (CALICO). The original assets were listed at close to $7 million, said at the time to be the heaviest initial capitalization ever for a Texas insurance company; the incorporators were Lloyd Sr. and Uncle Elmer, whose $7 million it was (mostly in mortgages), and Lloyd Jr., who was president.
Right off, Bentsen sued the federal government over IRS regulations that classified the family’s neat transfer of personally-held mortgages as not only incestuous but taxable as well. “The issue wasn’t really taxes,” he says today, “but that it was a stupid restriction on business. It was just another case of over-regulation that was outmoded. Nowadays it’s considered healthy, it’s a standard business practice.” The Bentsen law suit is now generally recognized as a benchmark in the early development of giant, broadly-based financial holding companies. Before much longer, the issue of party loyalty raised its head again, and Bentsen was involved in a watershed as important for Texas politics as his IRS suit was for business.
Allan Shivers, still governor and still rebellious, was once more preparing to lead a massive Democratic defection toward Eisenhower in the 1956 presidential election. Lyndon Johnson, nursing ambitions as a future Democratic presidential candidate, was preparing at all costs to stop him. As the struggle bore down on the first state party convention with no clearcut winner, both sides grew increasingly frantic; every Democrat in sight was forced to declare allegiance. For Bentsen, close personally to both Shivers and Johnson, it was a particularly difficult decision. He declared, ultimately, for Johnson.
Marshaling a coalition of loyalists—presided over by Sam Rayburn—Johnson captured the convention, but barely. Then, perhaps in gratitude for Bentsen’s allegiance, he picked Mrs. B. A. Bentsen as his nominee for Democratic national committeewoman. The liberals, however, who had done most of the loyalist trench-fighting at the precinct and county levels, demanded one of their own and nominated Mrs. R. D. “Frankie” Randolph, an outspoken, indefatigable liberal organizer from Houston. They had Johnson boxed, of course, and knew it: he couldn’t openly support Mrs. Bentsen without risking the loss of his liberal allies, or at best exposing his fragile majority. Supported by votes she couldn’t otherwise have gotten from Johnson-Rayburn loyalists who assumed she was Lyndon’s choice, Mrs. Randolph soundly outpolled Mrs. Bentsen, who was understandably viewed as the Shivers candidate.
It was the only political defeat ever suffered in the Bentsen family, and clearly revealed his limited standing within the party at that time. “If he’d had any stroke at all his wife wouldn’t have lost,” suggests a veteran liberal, survivor of that and many other equally scrappy conventions. “There weren’t very many people there Frankie could’ve beat, but Mrs. Bentsen sure was one of ‘em.”
Three months later, returning from the national convention to the second state convention in Abilene, the Harris County delegates, core of the liberal bloc, found their credentials revoked, themselves barred from entering, and the highway patrol daring them to try. (“It was Lyndon’s way of gettin’ back at us,” says the veteran, grinning at the recollection.) Joined by liberals from other delegations, they stalked off to a nearby cow barn, held their own convention, and pronounced themselves sworn enemies of Lyndon Johnson. It was the first in the long, angry succession of liberal walkouts, lockouts, and rump conventions, the beginning of a ritual Democratic feud that surpasses the Hatfields and McCoys in meanness, and continues even today. And it all started because Lyndon Johnson was infuriated by the liberal rejection of Mrs. Bentsen and, probably more importantly, by their outmaneuvering of him.
Bentsen, to all appearances, spent less time brooding than Johnson, returning from the first convention to busy himself with the intricate work of empire-building. CALICO had never been envisioned, really, as just another picayune insurance outfit hustling policies to schoolteachers and deathbed widows; it wouldn’t have needed all that capital. Instead it was Bentsen’s ante in the corporate cardgame, a repository for the bonded poker chips he intended to play in the boardrooms of America. Insurance was supposed to provide the constant replenishment of his stack of chips.
Like a pin-striped Amarillo Slim, Bentsen played the game with dedication, concentration, and a cold eye on the main chance. A former associate described him as “a tough, smart businessman who worked his ass off. I don’t think he ever sat down to talk a deal when he didn’t know more about the situation than whoever he was talking to. He’d put in twenty hours if he had to, but he’d know it.”
His first big play was to merge with an insurance company that was actually interested in selling insurance: Lincoln Liberty Life, of Lincoln, Nebraska. Bentsen became president of the new, vastly larger Lincoln Liberty (the CALICO charter was canceled), responsible for managing the investments from Houston while the policies were peddled from Nebraska. The merger enabled him to get into some pretty high-stakes games now (“an oil-man’s game,” Slim would call it, as opposed to a mere “cattleman’s game”), but Bentsen remained a steady winner.
By 1963, when the 27 shimmery black stories of the Sheraton-Lincoln tower were opened in downtown Houston, Bentsen was being viewed as something of a cardsharp in financial circles. “He ran a pretty tight ship,” says the old associate, “but a fast one. If he wanted to move into something, we could get there quicker than anybody else.” Since its home office was in Nebraska, Lincoln Liberty avoided restrictive Texas banking laws, and was able to hold substantial numbers of bank shares (welcome supplements to the company’s stock portfolio), a fortuitous opportunity—or ingenious ploy—that Bentsen made the most of, and which earned him pioneer status in the now commonplace trend toward bank holding companies.
He was also an early innovator in the application of data processing equipment and sophisticated management techniques. In 1967, the insurance facade and its satellite ventures were fused into Lincoln Consolidated, Inc., a mammoth multi-faceted holding company headed by Bentsen and encompassing everything from a funeral home to a string of savings-and-loan companies. His reputation as a wizard money-manager was also, by this time, bringing invitations to sit on the boards of giant multi-national corporations: Lockheed, Panhandle Eastern Pipeline, Continental Oil. It was truly major-league poker now, the fastest table there is.
Lincoln Consolidated was becoming, under Bentsen’s direction, a major financial institution, with subsidiary offices dispensing a variety of financial services. Stewart Davis, in an excellent article on Bentsen’s finances for the Dallas Morning News, quotes a former Bentsen associate: “It was our hope that we could, for example, take your pay-check and spend it for you, make your investments, pay your bills, buy your insurance, purchase your bonds and mutual funds and so forth.” That is not a humble aspiration. It fits well, however, with Bentsen’s personality, with that need to push to the limits, that compelling need not to be bored.
It was at this apex of his business dealings that Bentsen followed that personality trait right out of business, which had lost its challenge. His original family backers received some $30 million when they traded in their ownership of Lincoln Consolidated. Bentsen’s personal wealth, according to his 1971 financial statement, was $2.3 million. (He has refused to update that 1971 statement, asserting that “a man is entitled to a little privacy,” but last January he placed all of his assets in a blind trust with Texas Commerce Bank of Houston.) Bentsen was seeking that arena he had withdrawn from almost two decades before: politics. This time, however, the stakes were higher, and the man he was betting against was United States Senator Ralph Yarborough.
Mercurial, vituperative, often inspiring, Yarborough was the heroic dragon-slayer of Texas labor and Texas liberals, the only one of their number ever to achieve statewide office. He was also the implacable archenemy of the entire Democratic Establishment, beginning with Lyndon Johnson, and including every governor in living memory. A native of deep East Texas, Yarborough was a red-dirt Southern Populist of the old school, with all of its best and worst attributes: humanist conviction and missionary zeal, unassailable integrity and self-righteous piety, moral courage and virulent indignation. A gentle, deeply compassionate man in private, he was a blustery, belligerent stemwinder when he took to the stump. By 1970 he’d built a record of accomplishment in education, veterans affairs and conservation matters and risen to the chairmanship of the Labor Committee, he also had his first decent campaign treasury, and he thought he was secure.
His challenger, however, had been keeping his hand in the political game all along. As Houston finance chairman for the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson ticket Bentsen had outfinanced the entire rest of the state; two years later he was part of the small gathering at Dolph Briscoe’s ranch that convinced John Connally to return from Washington and run for governor. He was one of the cornerstones in the Johnson-Connally wing of the party, helping solicit contributions or recruit candidates, filling, roughly the same role in Houston and South Texas that Bob Strauss was filling in Dallas and North Texas.
Bentsen had even thought seriously about challenging Yarborough in 1964. Bob Strauss set up meetings for him in Dallas, got as far as raising a little money for him. Connally and Shivers publicly urged him to make the race and he even opened a headquarters. But then Lyndon Johnson, who was running for re-election himself and didn’t want a messy Texas primary confusing things, talked him out of it (“He sweet-talked me,” Bentsen says now, with a wry grin), much as he’d earlier browbeat Joe Kilgore—who had succeeded to Bentsen’s House seat—out of it.
In 1966, doubtless righting what he considered an old wrong, Connally saw that Mrs. Bentsen was named national committeewoman. Later, when Connally was preparing to leave office in 1968, he and Strauss went scouting about for a strong candidate to field as his successor. They had built a smooth-running, powerful organization during Connally’s six years as governor, and risked losing it if they couldn’t retain the statehouse. Their first choice was Bentsen, who had no interest in the job. “The next time a Senate race comes along,” Bentsen told them, “I might be interested in that.”
Sure enough, one came along. In late 1969 Bentsen journeyed out to the LBJ Ranch to get an updated opinion on a Yarborough challenge. “You really can’t do it,” Johnson pessimistically advised. “I been watchin’ Ralph, and he’s down here speaking every time you look. And he’s sending out those damn commemorative stamps. Even I’m getting ’em, and you know if he’s sending ’em to me, he must be sending ’em to everybody.”
John Connally offered his vaunted organizational and fundraising help. John Mobley, once a Longview state legislator and later a Connally staffer, was recruited as campaign manager, and began working from Connally’s key list of county managers to create a statewide organization. Bulk mailings went out to Connally’s mailing list—solicitations for, support, endorsement contributions, volunteer labor—all over Connally’s signature. George Christian and Jimmy Banks, both former Connally press aides (Christian had also been Johnson’s White House press secretary), signed on.
Even with all that, when Bentsen made his official announcement he was unquestionably the underdog. The most favorable poll he could find showed him with less than two per cent name recognition. (Eugene Locke, the candidate Connally and Strauss eventually put forward in that 1968 gubernatorial race, was given much of the same Connally machine assistance, but placed a slow, sorry fifth in a ten-way primary.) The biggest asset Bentsen had going into the race was that it was against Yarborough. That translated into thirty per cent of the vote to start with and it guaranteed a generous supply of Establishment contributions.
From the outset, then, Bentsen’s strategy was dictated by the nature of his opposition: he was running not so much for the Senate as against Ralph Yarborough. As seems to be inevitable whenever there’s a head-to-head liberal-conservative showdown in Texas, the whole affair was pretty ugly.
Bentsen lashed out at Yarborough for supporting “unbridled government spending,” Eugene McCarthy for president, the Vietnam Moratorium, and busing; and for opposing welfare reform, Supreme Court nominees Haynsworth and Carswell, and praying. Except for the spurious inclusion of praying (tenuously based on a vote against Everett Dirksen’s so-called “School Prayer Amendment,” which was also opposed by Bible-quoting Sam Ervin and the Texas Baptist Convention), all of the aforementioned were generally relevant issues, legitimately raised and deserving of amplification. Which, as it happens, is what Bentsen was doing in personal appearances: he’d bring up the issues, throw in for good measure Yarborough’s opposition to postal reform while chairman of the Post Office Committee, and talk about for them a while; it was all pretty tame, even dull.
Bentsen’s paid advertising, on the other hand, of which there was an enormous outpouring, was a long way from being tame. The most memorable TV ad featured full-color footage from the 1970 May Day riots in Washington, the part where the Weathermen are storming the Vietnamese Embassy, with sirens wailing, tear gas exploding, victims screaming, and even a huge NLF flag unfurling center-screen—all of which is being ominously narrated by a Jack Webb-style voice that is somehow blaming it all on Ralph Yarborough. Bentsen didn’t appear anywhere in the spots, even on the soundtrack, which usually ended with the officiously-intoned question “Did Ralph Yarborough represent YOUR views when… [he did whatever he did to cause all that havoc]?”
Yarborough, meanwhile, was campaigning up a storm against Allan Shivers, Lyndon Johnson, John Connally, and Bentsen’s parents—none of whom turned out to be on the ballot. The standard Yarborough campaign speech was a purplish diatribe on wetback-exploiting, land-defrauding, slave-holding, and other heinous everyday activities of the family Bentsen. When, late in the campaign, he finally added Lloyd Jr. to his list of opponents, he usually sought to portray him as a kind of combination Boss Tweed and Adolf Krupp, with possible genetic deficiencies to boot.
All told, it was a sordid, gutter-level brawl, reflecting poorly on the state, the party, and both candidates, the only difference being that Bentsen had enough money—quite a lot of money—to sling his mud right through the TV set and into living rooms all over Texas. Bentsen took 53 per cent of the vote. The nature of his campaign, however, remains one of the clammier obstacles to Bentsen’s presidential aspirations, with deep resentment still lingering among scattered liberals across the country.
Bentsen next turned around to face a perplexed George Bush, the Houston GOP congressman who had spent four years making ready to run against Ralph Yarborough. And everything got very sedate all of a sudden. Bush and Bentsen seemed so alike they could easily have passed for close relations, right down to mutual memberships in the River Oaks Country Club. If the Democratic Primary was X-rated, the general election was safely PG. Both candidates presented themselves to the public as Christian family men who took long walks in the park with their children and dogs, and helped their wives with the dishes. Bush made the mistake, apparently fatal, of removing his coat while park-walking, but there was scant other noticeable difference.
If anything at all, Bentsen subtly managed to cast Bush as the liberal by mentioning, quietly and infrequently, Bush’s votes for gun control and open housing. The dramatic climax of the campaign was a Bentsen TV special, cohosted by “my good friend John,” devoted to more children and dogs, plus a spirited attack, mostly by Connally, on “the Republican recession.”
What Bentsen was doing was dancing along a narrow, paradoxical tightrope through Texas politics. In the past, conservatives waging bitter hardline primaries against liberals were often abandoned by the liberals in the general election (viz., Carr-Tower, 1966). Bentsen was smarter. For all of the thundering he did at Yarborough, he never said a direct word against organized labor. As a result, and thanks to a long summer of backrooms and beerhalls, he had labor backing against Bush. Likewise, he courted the black vote intensively, usually assisted by black political favorites like Barbara Jordan and, in Houston, Fred Hofheinz. It was kind of a pincer movement, painting Bush as the liberal while he pocketed the bulk of what, in Texas, is the liberal vote, and all the while maintaining his conservative base of support. He beat Bush by the same margin he had Yarborough, 53 to 47.
Within a month, the Nixon-Agnew team—which had campaigned personally to elect Bush—perceptively discerned just who held the cards in Texas, and laid claim to both Connally and Bentsen. Nixon invited Connally to be his treasury secretary, and Agnew went on television to include Bentsen among the Administration’s “ideological majority” in the upcoming Congress. Agnew hadn’t bothered to check this assessment with Bentsen, but, then, given the tenor of Bentsen’s campaign, he probably didn’t think he needed to.
He should have checked. Bentsen had no intention of being a Senate wallflower, and it didn’t take Lyndon Johnson’s advice (which he got) to see that Dixiecrats were out of vogue in the modern Democratic Party. Bentsen wasted no time declaring just whose majority he intended to be in. At his first Washington press conference he resolutely announced “I’m coming here as a part of the loyal opposition, not as part of the Nixon forces,” and added (with a straight face) that he was a little amazed at all the confusion. He shortly added emphasis—and substance—to his remarks by voting to ease, the cloture rule (the rule shutting off debate; an anti-filibuster vote), in a brash departure from traditional Dixiecrat etiquette.
The Balancing Act
If there really is a Military-Industrial Complex in this country, then its solar plexus is the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Senate. “The heart of the beast,” it was once called by an antiwar senator, who was outraged by what he felt was the committee’s undue enthusiasm for military ventures and Pentagon budgets.
Bentsen didn’t want to be on Armed Services when he came to the Senate. He requested Finance but couldn’t get it—lost by one vote in the Democratic Caucus. Assigned to the Research and Development Subcommittee of Armed Services, he set about doing everything freshman senators are obliged to do: faithfully attend hearings, volunteer for the drudgery, be prepared, do homework, don’t get uppity. Being a freshman senator ingeniously blends all the obnoxious elements of being a college freshman, a fraternity pledge, and a junior executive.
In early 1972, as part of its fiscal 1973 budget, the Nixon Administration joined with the Pentagon to propose spending more than $2 billion for accelerated development of the Trident submarine, a nuclear-fueled, missile-spewing behemoth that the Navy said was absolutely essential for the national defense. So essential, in fact, that the original previously-approved and funded three-year development schedule wasn’t fast enough, and needed to be compressed into one year. It was just the sort of proposal that Armed Services normally endorses with a quick quorum, three pledges of allegiance, and a secret vote.
The request was shuffled to the Research and Development subcommittee for the purpose of holding hearings, calling witnesses, and generally trying to get to the bottom of things. During the course of the hearings, two things happened: Senator Thomas McIntyre, the subcommittee chairman, was taken ill, so Bentsen assumed the chair; and it was discovered that the admirals didn’t necessarily know what they were talking about. It would unfairly discredit McIntyre to imply a direct correlation between these events, but there was an association of sorts.
“It was the best show on the Hill,” recalls a Senate staffer. “Bentsen kept chewing up all these Pentagon types—he kept pointing out to them how little they really knew about what they wanted to do.”
Another, less wide-eyed observer says, “You could really tell that he’d been on all those corporation boards. He ran those hearings like it was General Motors. The Pentagon’s used to coming over here and talking to a bunch of politicians, and selling their program in political terms. Bentsen hit ’em on their flank and made ’em defend it in a way they’d never had to and weren’t prepared to. Personally, I don’t think he did anything to Trident that anybody as sharp as him couldn’t do to most research and development requests. They’re all a waste of money as far as I’m concerned, and he’d just spent enough time on boards of directors to know it when he saw it.”
The subcommittee voted to halve the Trident allocation, practically eliminating the accelerated schedule and redeeming the billion-dollar difference. In full committee, with Bentsen arguing the case against telescoped development, the first vote was 8-to-7 to stand by the subcommittee’s redaction. But then, according to a knowledgeable staff member, “The Navy traded for a vote by promising a submarine base,” and the tally metamorphosed into 8-to-7 for full funding. The Nixon Administration leaned heavily on the issue when the floor fight came up, and secured a narrow 49-47 passage.
Bentsen, though, had won a significant personal victory, and his first major Senate recognition. It was, as they say, highly irregular: a freshman senator opposing an Administration/Pentagon combination on a major Defense Department request—in the Armed Services Committee of all places—and actually winning (if only for a little while); rather like Baylor challenging Ohio State, and offering to play in Columbus.
“The important thing,” says the knowledgeable staffer, “was the way he did it—just good, sound, conservative business principles, showed them how stupid it was.” In the two years (and $2 billion) since the Trident vote, the Navy has apparently, belatedly, crept up on that same conclusion, having incorporated much of Bentsen’s original argument into its most recent report. Bentsen’s handling of the Trident hearings and resulting skirmishes won high marks from other senators who were close to the issue, especially—surprisingly—John Stennis, the Mississippian who chairs Armed Services and voted against Bentsen at every turn.
Stennis joined a small coterie of Bentsen fans, mostly conservatives and a few moderates, who have watched him at short range and been impressed with his ability. The charter member of the club had been Mike Mansfield, the Democratic majority leader, who says with half a grin (quite a lot of grin for Mansfield), “He kind of grows on you if you give him a chance.”
When Bentsen first joined the Senate he was, by right of his three prior House terms, the senior member of his class and, consequently, the one chosen to represent it before the leadership and organize it within the Senate. For a compulsive organizer like Bentsen, it was more bequest than assignment. He soon found himself telling his classmates, “We’re wasting our time with a lot of this nonsense,” while he scurried around trying to eliminate nonsense and organize the mundane affairs of moving in, like office assignments and staff recruitment. Before long, the routine assignment sprouted all the trappings of a formal committee, with him as chairman (and Bill Brock as vice-chairman); and then Alan Cranston, the Californian who represented the preceding class, came and asked for help. They all joined together and approached the leadership with a profusion of suggested housekeeping modifications, all dealing with things like the posting and scheduling of bills, staff allotments, and holiday calendars.
By this time Bentsen was also organizing the daylights out of his own Senate office. He hired a management consulting team to devise an operational system, and got flow charts, seating charts, job descriptions, and route maps for everything from personal memos to crank calls. He made a number of additional innovations—removing the burden of constituent case work to field offices in Texas, and hiring a battery of legislative assistants with specialty areas, instead of just one legislative assistant with his own revolving assistants—that have since been widely adopted by other senators. Scouts from other offices began dropping by to try and figure how Bentsen’s system works.
It’s all pretty remarkable. Bentsen is quite proud of the organizational blitz he did on his office, and can quote the numbers and types of letters he gets and how long it takes to answer them, talking for ten or fifteen minutes and (honest to God) getting excited about it.
Somewhere in there, too, he was finding time to vote, generally in a manner dispelling any apprehensions of latent Dixiecrat tendencies. He came back from an inspection tour of Vietnam and started voting with the Democratic majorities on end-the-war resolutions, including the cut-off of Cambodian funds. He cast a crucial, completely surprising vote against the Supersonic Transport, for many of the same reasons he opposed the Trident project. (One conservative, remembering Bentsen’s SST vote, said: “It wasn’t any of this liberal crap about ‘ozone-poisoning’ or some nonsense like that. He was against it because he thought it was a bad investment.”)
The one place where he did manage to get himself caught, inextricably, between a rock and a hard special interest was on his other major standing committee assignment, Public Works, where he was chairman of the roads subcommittee. Besides occasional odd-lot chores like initiating the 55-mph speed limit, this subcommittee is responsible, every two years, for offering the federal highway appropriation.
Invariably, a great clamor comes from one direction to break loose some of the highway trust fund for cities to spend on mass transit systems. From another direction, also invariably, comes a determined resolve to preserve the sanctity of roads and the highway trust. Lurking in this second direction is the roadbuilding highway lobby—surpassingly powerful back home in Texas—and the oil business lobby—also an institution of some note.
Bentsen wasn’t at all ambiguous about which side he favored, declaring that the highway trust should remain as chaste and untouched as possible; the explanation he normally offered for this protectiveness was that the costs of mass transit were far too high for the puny $6 billion highway trust to put much of a dent in, so why bother. That, quite obviously, is a pretty featherweight line of reasoning from a man generally assumed to be one of the Senate’s heavier intellects.
Bentsen’s problem as subcommittee chairman was further complicated by the fact that the urban-conscious Senate was without a doubt going to vote to crack the highway nest egg, with the encouragement also of the Nixon Administration. Attempting to finesse the dilemma, Bentsen tried a compromise that would allow cities to spend their share of the highway loot on bus transit systems but not rail transit. The Senate wasn’t buying, and adopted an amendment by Ed Muskie and Howard Baker to include rail transit as a legitimate city expense.
Bentsen was successful, though, at finessing another portion of the bill: a clause withdrawing a short segment of San Antonio highway from the federal system, thus letting the state pay for it and avoid the legal entanglements thrown up by environmentalists who didn’t want the highway barreling through Brackenridge Park.
By now, 1973, Bentsen had finally cadged an appointment to the Finance Committee, thanks in part to Mansfield’s sponsorship, and given up his seat on Armed Services; he became the first Texan to serve on a major fiscal committee in the Senate since Lyndon Johnson gave up his seat on Appropriations fourteen years ago. Finance is one of the most—perhaps the most—complex and powerful committees in the Senate, the one that handles taxation, welfare, health, social security, and most oil legislation. It had been Bentsen’s first choice largely because he felt his economic expertise, business experience, and management skills—not to exclude personal enthusiasm—could be most effectively employed here. He was soon giving that notion a thorough test.
For a half-dozen years, on and off, the Congress had been trying to untie the convoluted difficulties involved in reforming private pension plans. The use of such plans have ballooned over the past decade to embrace some 30 million Americans, and, simultaneously, reports of abuses, failures, and outright frauds had increased frightfully. There were any number of grim tales about people who belonged to, and paid into, pension plans for two decades and more, only to lose their pensions through plan failures or contractual quirks. By 1973, pension reform was a major legislative goal for organized labor, and the Senate Finance Committee was up to its adding machines in unreformed confusion.
“Well, the most obvious thing that made Bentsen effective,” recalls a man who worked on pension reform, “was that he knew so much about it. There wasn’t any doubt that he understood the problems better than anyone there—the technical aspects, I mean.
“The thing that impressed me was that he didn’t go parading around about how much he knew. He probably could have, and got away with it because everyone else was so unsure of the whole thing, but he never did. I think that’s why they [other senators] listen to him so closely, because they know he isn’t just grandstanding.”
Of the four bills that were eventually distilled and presented to the committee, Bentsen’s undoubtedly was the most comprehensive. It was also the most complicated. Most important, it was the one that passed.
“I’m the lowest ranking member of Finance,” he says, not particularly bashful, “but the number on that bill was mine. You can’t find another piece of major legislation passed by the lowest ranking member of a committee.”
The pension reform bill is probably Bentsen’s outstanding legislative accomplishment, and certainly one that justifies pride, but it’s also—not just incidentally—one of the keystones in his presidential plans, his admission ticket to union conventions. “I’m convinced we’d have never gotten pension reform without Bentsen,” admits one labor leader. “We’d have gotten something, but it wouldn’t have been reform.”
Another legislative area that figures prominently, though less congenially, in Bentsen’s presidential endeavors, is oil. Formerly on the board of directors of a major oil company (Continental) and heavily supported by oilmen in his Senate campaign, he definitely came to the Senate as a friend of the oil industry. Then, too, as he still puts it in speeches, “Every senator must be concerned about an industry which is critical to the economy of his state.”
Until a little over a year ago, he had few qualms about demonstrating this concern. He introduced legislation to phase out ceilings on natural gas prices, supported the Alaska pipeline, fought against profit restrictions and distasteful taxation for the oil industry, and generally carried their water in myriad small but meaningful ways, from amending a bill to insure adequate supplies of tubular steel for oilfield pipe, to protecting oil interests in water pollution control hearings.
Then last December, less than a month after he admits “deciding to test the [presidential] waters,” he began battening down some of his wide-open hatches. He introduced two oil bills that month, one rather meaningless, and one which assuredly is not: it would quadruple the payments oil companies must make on oil and gas production from federal offshore areas. It would greatly reduce the enormous bonuses—or upfront payments—normally anted up for off-shore rights, while greatly increasing—from 16 per cent to 65 per cent—the royalty paid the government for production.
The effect of the bill, if it passes, would not only multiply the revenues from offshore land (to about the same percentage, Bentsen points out, that these companies are already paying foreign governments) but it would also make offshore drilling more accessible to independent oilmen, who cannot now afford the huge bonus payments the big oil companies come up with. Politically, the intention is to remove the stigma of being an oil senator in the least harmful fashion: by antagonizing the major oil companies and, with luck, retaining friendships with the more politically potent independents.
“We’ve pretty well burned our bridges with the majors,” says a Bentsen staffer, who also confided that Bentsen intends soon to propose the removal of the oil depletion allowance for the majors while keeping it for the independents. “We’ve been working on it and thinking about it for some time,” he says. “We’ve got a formula that we think can save about 97 per cent of the independents.”
Another aspect of Bentsen’s attempt to escape the stigma of local interest on oil has been to build a reputation in energy policy separate and apart from the controversial issue of oil. He proposed an “energy investment fund” to ease reliance on oil by encouraging conversion to different production methods, new product lines, or other fossil fuels. He also joined with Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson—currently the acknowledged front-runner for the Democratic nomination and the Senate’s chief spokesman on oil/energy matters—to advocate research into more exotic energy sources. In recent months, Bentsen has become a leading proponent of coal gasification and liquefaction, which he feels can take up the slack when oil reserves are exhausted.
And if all these energy proposals seem confusing, then it’s just part-and-parcel of Bentsen’s entire voting record. There are random markers that stick up here and there—his being the first senator to speak against the Russian wheat deal, for instance—but almost everything else dissolves into a hazy ground fog of moderation. Bentsen is so moderate that even amidst the fight—largely his fight—against the accelerated development of Trident, he still, managed to vote for the submarine itself. That is moderation of exceptional regularity.
Almost every pressure and interest group that bothers to compile voting records figures Bentsen squarely in the middle of their particular interest or pressure—if the labels were switched on all the scorecards, his record would still look about the same. Only a few specialized groups have been able to achieve an individual perspective: he gets high grades from women, educators, and the elderly—especially the elderly—and relatively low ones from environmentalists and civil libertarians.
In its entirety, then, Bentsen’s voting record is one of conspicuous moderation and artful ambiguity (that’s called “centrist” in Washington). He explains it as “the common sense approach. Everybody’s always wanting to know if you’re liberal or conservative. Well I’m not sure that means anything: I just want to see if something’s going to work.”
Whatever one chooses to call it, Bentsen’s unclassifiable voting record provides him the definite advantage of ideological camouflage. One Republican senator was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “Whatever his philosophy, it’s so well disguised that no one reacts automatically by thinking, ‘If it’s Bentsen, it’s gotta be good—or bad.’ The result is that he gets a hearing.”
Another senator, this time a liberal Democrat, says, “I figure that nine times out of ten Bentsen’ll vote with labor and with oil. But that’s not always true, and even if it was, they’re only involved in about ten per cent of everything we vote on—outside of that, he’s anybody’s guess. But you know that if he is going to do something, he’s got some pretty strong arguments for it, so you pay attention to him. I don’t necessarily agree with him that much, but I’ll listen to him.”
The managerial skills that Bentsen acquired and refined during his fifteen years in the high echelons of corporate business, plus his inherent (almost obsessive) organizing aptitude, have also furnished him with uncommon advantages in his Senate ascendancy. “Don’t forget,” cautions an old Senate hand, “that most of these guys have never been anything but politicians all their lives, Bentsen came here with a record of success in business—that’s something the rest of them have to get out of Fortune magazine. He’s had real-life experience in a lot of areas the rest of them have to hire three assistants to help figure out.
“And besides that,” snickers the old hand, “he’s intelligent and he doesn’t chase women, which sets him apart from about half the rest of them right there.”
Bentsen’s assorted attributes have earned him remarkable prominence in the Senate—clearly evidenced by the serious acceptance of his presidential notions—and all the more remarkable because he’s still in his first term. “I’d put him in a category with Jackson and Kennedy in being able to make things move,” says a Washington lobbyist who keeps careful watch on that sort of thing. “We once made a deal to import some obscure chemical, and there were some old import restrictions on it. Nothing very serious, it didn’t involve any duties or anything, but it would’ve taken us about twenty years to bring it all in. So I went to Bentsen and asked for some help. Three days later he was ready to go and you know who he had for cosponsors? Mansfield, Jackson, and [Senate GOP Leader] Hugh Scott. That’s when you know somebody’s strong.” That same estimation is reflected by a labor lobbyist who says, “We lose Bentsen on a few votes, sure, but I wouldn’t trade fifty votes for that pension bill.”
The reference to pension reform points up Bentsen’s most notable distinction, which has largely established his Senate prominence and which he hopes might propel his presidential candidacy: his interest in, and affinity for, complex economic problems. Besides serving on the Finance Committee, he is a member of the Joint Economic Committee (again thanks partly to Mansfield, whose resolution led to the committee’s creation), perhaps the only committee that surpasses Finance in the breadth, depth, and naturally inscrutable quality of important issues it tackles.
As a result of his work on the JEC, Bentsen proposed a major overhaul and expansion of the machinery used by Congress to deal with federal finance. “If my business had been run the way Congress spends money,” he says, “I’d have been bankrupt in six months.” His solution is similar to what he applied to his business: professional staffing, a data retrieval system, and a reorganized General Accounting Office. (Bentsen’s proposals for expanded congressional budget capability, it is interesting to note, put him in direct opposition to another Texan, House Appropriations Committee chairman George Mahon, who says spending money is “a matter of will and judgment, not computers.”)
In the Finance Committee, Bentsen is working on legislation that he sees as a fit successor to his pension reform bill, and a lot of people see as a major attempt to democratize the nation’s stock exchanges. Appointed chairman of a specially-created financial markets subcommittee, Bentsen held hearings on the ratio and status of individual versus institutional investors in the stock market. Over the past decade the dollar-volume of stocks traded by individual investors fell from 65 to 30 per cent of the total traded, a difference made up by banks, insurance companies, mutual funds, trusts and other large institutions. These institutions, moreover, tended to concentrate their investments in a small number of select stocks, giving them, according to Bentsen, excessive power over both the stock market and the economy in general. This state of affairs also discriminates against small investors, whose meager holdings are at the mercy of large-volume traders, and makes more difficult the raising of risk capital because big institutions are not prone to gamble.
Bentsen has introduced legislation that he hopes will be corrective. Talking about his institutional investors bill, Bentsen can get almost as excited as bankers do when they rage against it. He went up to the River City Club in New York—a place bearing the same relation to the banking business as the Petroleum Club does to the oil industry —to debate the president of the First National City Bank. “He got red in the face he was so mad,” says Bentsen, with a touch of glee. “There were 150 of them there, and I had to take ’em all on. I know some of them that agree with me, but they weren’t going to say it in front of those others.” He talks for a bit about the banking lobby that’s after his bill, then grins again, says, “But I’ll bet you I get it.”
The institutional investors bill, like the pension reform bill (and also like his major work for women’s day care), illustrates what is perhaps the one transcendent feature of Bentsen’s approach to government policy: the inclination to cure root causes rather than treat surface effects. As such, his major initiatives (or most of them) are largely immune to contemporary definitions of “liberal” or “conservative”; the institutional investors bill, with its assault on the big financial institutions, will probably appeal mostly to “liberals,” and doubtless be supported mostly by “liberal” votes, yet it is free-market capitalism in the most basic sense, and classically conservative.
This dealing with root causes works both ways, of course. Bentsen’s major effort in the crime-fighting field—what one cynic called “his rightwing law’n’order bill”—was a bill to relax the exclusionary rule in criminal trial proceedings. The exclusionary rule, essentially, is the bedrock mechanism by which defendants’ constitutional rights are protected, a prohibition against the use of illegally-obtained evidence. It has been a part of federal criminal trial law since 1914; it is also the essential mechanism with which all of the highly controversial defendants’ rights rulings—the Miranda decision and the like—are enforced. Bentsen referred to his bill as “tightening up criminal loopholes,” and it had the tacit support of Chief Justice Warren Burger.
Bentsen abandoned the bill after the American Bar Association, whose support he needed and expected, narrowly and surprisingly voted against it. (The opposition within the ABA was led by a Georgetown University Law professor named Sam Dash, later to become chief counsel for Sam Ervin and the Senate Watergate Committee.) Civil libertarians quite naturally were in an uproar over Bentsen’s proposal, and it obviously qualifies as “conservative.” But it was, once again, an attempt to deal with the root cause of what he (and a lot of other people, Burger among them) viewed as runaway rulings that freed convicted criminals because of procedural errors. Most “conservatives” were content to buy armored cars for police departments.
It goes without saying that anyone who wants to tinker with the system in order to fix it, is going to want to get as much leverage on the crowbar as possible. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “There’s only one place better than the Senate to get leverage. Inside the White House.”
The Competence Candidate
Today, with confidence waning, Americans may be alarmed by the obvious fact that our problems are becoming more complex and our politicians are not. Bentsen may be the thinking candidate for the alarmed person. – George F. Will
None other than Dolph Briscoe is on record as being the first major public official to suggest Lloyd Bentsen for president; he did it in June, 1973, at the National Governors’ Conference. But nobody knows it, of course, because nobody paid any attention, so poor Dolph’ll probably never get any credit.
Mike Mansfield is the one who really got things started, even though he was almost a whole month behind Dolph. Mansfield was on one of those Sunday morning interview programs when somebody asked him who he thought might make a good Democratic presidential candidate come 1976. He rambled on for a bit about “new faces” and then put names on three of them: Walter Mondale, Florida’s Governor Reubin Askew, and Lloyd Bentsen.
In the six-and-a-half months of 1973 prior to Mansfield’s mention of him, Bentsen had made six formal appearances outside of Texas; in the remaining five-and-a-half months he made 60. By the end of 1974 he will have logged another 150 appearances in 34 states, before every conceivable kind and size of audience.
In October, 1973, he spent nearly as much time campaigning in New Jersey as most of the candidates in that state’s general election, which the Democrats swept. During the December congressional recess he booked his transportation subcommittee as a road show into the nation’s urban centers, heard testimony on mass transit and made friends with big city political bosses. The following May, recouping some of that investment, he was the keynote speaker at the annual spring dinners of the three biggest county organizations in the country—Richard Daley’s in Cook County (Chicago), Pete Camiel’s in Philadelphia, and Meade Esposito’s in Brooklyn.
In June of 1974 he was the principal speaker at the U.S, Conference of Mayors and began building friendships and alliances. He now goes fishing with San Francisco’s Joseph Alioto, breakfasts with Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson and New York’s Abe Beame, is buddies with Richard Daley. He did the same thing with the U.S. Conference of State Legislators; he also visited governors’ conferences and union dinners, keynoted the Connecticut State Convention, stumped for and with a dozen different Democratic nominees for the U.S. Senate…
And on and on and on.
There are, however, another dozen men doing many of those same things, in much the same fashion, and another dozen who want to try. As with everything Bentsen does, though, he is better organized and more efficient; Newsweek quotes an Illinois national committeeman that “It’s kind of a subtle blitz when Bentson comes to town,” and his courting of the mayors’ and legislators’ conferences are innovations in pre-presidential maneuverings. He is also the best-financed candidate of the lot.
But at the same time, Bentsen has yet to breach the two per cent cutoff on a national poll and he faces enough high hurdles to discourage a Jesse Owens, not the least being that he comes from Texas and Texas politicians are (on good evidence) ranked slightly behind Sicilian accountants in public confidence. Bentsen, however, is not your garden-variety Texan. He wears $400 suits of impeccable tailoring and subdued colors, has the mannerisms of an Upper East Side bank president who collects modern art, and speaks without the faintest hint of an accent. (“People forget,” reminds Bentsen, “that the Valley was settled by Midwesterners and almost nobody there has an accent.”)
Moreover, he and his advisers are well aware of the negative images conjured up by Texas politicians—they consider it their major handicap—so they take pains to avoid it. Making speeches in the North, Bentsen usually begins with a modest joke about the “cowboys and oil” notions most people have regarding Texans, and then he proceeds to demonstrate subtly (without ever bluntly pointing it out) that he is most assuredly not what they had in mind. It’s a very effective show.
It remains to be seen if he can communicate images as deftly as he can erase them. Bentsen’s singular asset is his reputation within the Senate for competence and economic proficiency, and he hopes that Americans will be shopping for some of that in 1976. Competence, however, is a nebulous flag for a candidate to try and wrap himself in; Bentsen’s campaign style is a trifle lackluster as it is, and dressing it up in amorphous imagery might prove difficult. He had his first big chance to extend his reputation last summer, when the Democratic leadership (Mansfield again) gave him a half-hour of primetime network TV to offer the party’s response to Nixon’s last economic speech. His debut earned generally mixed reviews.
The hardest part of starting a presidential campaign is just that: starting it, getting other people to take it seriously. Bentsen had the good fortune of starting his in a year when everybody gets taken seriously who takes himself seriously. As David Broder, the Washington Post’s national political correspondent, puts it: “This year anybody who can raise $250,000 and get his hands on a mimeograph machine can be a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination.” Bentsen didn’t have any trouble with that part: there were mimeograph machines laying all around the Old Senate Office Building, and he pulled down $375,000 last November with one dinner in Houston.
There are several other factors that Bentsen has going for him: a heavy reputation within the Senate and a few friendly senators willing to provide a discreet boost; access to a lot more money; a sufficiently ambiguous voting record such that no one would arbitrarily reject him; and friends-in-high-places like Bob Strauss, national Democratic Party chairman these days, who named him to the party’s national advisory council.
Most of all, though, Bentsen has Bentsen. The Democratic nomination lies at the foot of a rainbow that is definable, mutable, and moderately rational, exactly the sort of enterprise that has always appealed to him, and he has always whipped.
During the 1973 Thanksgiving holiday, shortly after his Houston fundraising dinner (“That’s when I knew I’d have enough money to do it,” he says), Bentsen decided to invest a year in a “feasibility study,” and sat down to talk it over with his two top political aides: Lloyd Hackler, an ex-LBJ hand who is amiable, whip-smart, and so smooth that (said a Texas friend) “you need to stand off about three days and think real hard about what he said before you’ll figure out what he did to you”; and Ben Palumbo, a high-energy New Jersey political pro recruited away from Senator Harrison Williams.
The three men worked out the yearlong study emphasizing four goals: making Bentsen known to the party pros—the Daleys, Espositos and other, lesser satraps; making him known to the regional press; cultivating national columnists; and identifying him with the economic issue. They feel they’ve accomplished all of those, and then some. “We’re really way ahead of where we thought we’d be at this point,” says Bentsen.
One of the obvious major events speeding up the timetable was, of course, Ted Kennedy’s withdrawal from the race. Complicating matters, though, has been the influx of contenders, pretenders, New South Leaders, and even darker horses that Kennedy’s renunciation also emboldened to enter. The only candidates with any sizeable base of support today, are George Wallace and Scoop Jackson, and both of their’s fall considerably short of nominating strength.
Bentsen, like most everyone else in the race—like most everyone in Washington—expects the whole affair to be so jumbled that nobody will reach the convention with anything approaching a majority. The result then will be a brokered convention, with everyone desperately looking under rocks for a candidate that they all can agree on, and that might be able to make some sense out of the Democratic quagmire.
Bentsen is thinking they might be interested in a little competence about that time.
Probing The Mirage
The sun has long since succumbed to the Western invitation, leaving the wingtip leaden and untenanted. The Senator starts packing his briefcase as the plane begins gently sinking toward Washington National Airport.
“Does it ever worry you,” asks the Reporter, aiming his final volley, “that this managerial expertise is, uhm… or doesn’t sometimes run the risk of…”The Reporter grapples with the paradox that’s been bothering him, tries to form it into a question. “I mean, like Robert McNamara, that you can get so wrapped up in management details that you lose sight of where you’re heading?”
Bentsen considers this for a moment. “Well, I don’t think so…What you have, or what you need…” He fingers the armrest, struggling to form an answer as the Reporter had the question. “There has to be a joining—a wedding—with an overall policy, with someone responsible for making policy. It’s not a solution, it’s a pragmatic approach to making the system work.”
The Reporter doesn’t know if he’s satisfied with this answer or not, but the phrase built around “pragmatic” has again pushed his mind down another digression.
Politicians, of course, are always calling themselves pragmatists, probably because it sounds at once harmless and practical, and somehow in the American grain. It is, certainly, very American: our singular contribution to the body of Western philosophy, an empiricist tradition extending clear back to Emerson. The pragmatist was defined by William James as one who “turns away from abstractions and verbal solutions… from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.”
Which reads like an apt description, not just of Bentsen, but of American politicians in general; most of our Presidents have been pragmatists in varying degrees—electoral democracy virtually demands it. Jefferson, like all the Deists, was a pragmatist, and the first great pragmatist President, first in a lineage that also counts Lincoln and both Roosevelts. But there’s more to it than just pragmatism: “It does not stand for any special results,” cautioned James. “It is a method only.” Pragmatism, like Bentsen’s managerial competence, requires a joining—a wedding, as Bentsen says—to an overall policy, to an ethic or moral imperative of some sort, or else it is somehow incomplete, rather like a musclebound imbecile.
The Reporter has tried rummaging through Bentsen’s motives, convictions, principles—tried probing the mirage—in an effort to fathom the outlines of a policy that might serve as a wedding partner. What he’s found, he thinks, is a shadowy commitment to a rational society, efficiency, and above all, organization. Such a society would preclude non-rational elements like unemployment, bigotry, poverty, and bad investments (SSTs or Asian wars); it would also downgrade theoretical precepts in favor of immediate practical considerations, and thus neglect environmentalism, internationalism, civil libertarianism, and reject busing.
When applied to politics, pragmatism is ordinarily attacked as being ruthless, calculating, and unprincipled, labels that have been vigorously affixed to most politicians in more or less direct ratio to their political success (e.g., both Roosevelts and all Kennedys). Not surprisingly, Bentsen has had them glued to his name, too, usually by liberal detractors who throw in their own personality observations—cold, aloof, unknowable—and claim to have discovered “the Democratic Nixon.” Coming from the opposite direction, Bentsen sycophants draw on a different set of adjectives—patrician, pragmatist, innovator, administrator—to fashion a Franklin Roosevelt facsimile.
It’s a little like playing scrabble, making up words to suit your own uses. They’re equally inaccurate, the Bentsen-Nixon and the Bentsen-Roosevelt. Bentsen is not a Nixon: he is both easily accessible and a good listener—a better and closer listener than any politician the Reporter has known—hence, not likely to become isolated from political realities; moreover, Bentsen’s family background and his accomplishments in business have made him far too self-confident and secure ever to get caught up in Vince Lombardi fantasies. As for Roosevelt, Bentsen lacks the effusiveness and warmth for people—individually and collectively—that animated FDR. Comparisons between politicians are ultimately futile, anyway. Bentsen is not your ordinary conservative politician, fighting a rear-guard action against change, nor is he a liberal reformer; rather, he espouses reform for the purpose of preserving traditional conservative values like the free enterprise system.
“There’s Senator Bentsen!” hollers some over-loud bystander as Bentsen walks into the airport lobby. The Reporter can almost see the adrenalin rush as Bentsen stops to shake hands with a half-dozen late-night airport hangers-on.
The scene reminds the Reporter of the first time he encountered Bentsen as an unknown, underdog candidate during the 1970 Senate primary. There had been a press pool among the 24 journalists covering the Yarborough-Bentsen contest, five dollars apiece to pick the winner and his margin. Four of the journalists were neophytes, covering their first Texas campaign, and were encouraged to join in because they were counted as easy marks; they each picked Bentsen. The twenty veterans all bet on Yarborough.