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Ex-senator, V.P. nominee Lloyd Bentsen dies at 85

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Bentsen (The Spokesman-Review)

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

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

In a statement Tuesday, President Bush called Bentsen “a man of great honor and distinction.”

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

But Bentsen may be best remembered for his retort to Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle during the 1988 presidential campaign.

The silver-haired Bentsen, who had campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, was chosen by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to be his presidential running mate.

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

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

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

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

“That’s one of the reasons why people took him seriously and gave him important positions and put him on national tickets.”

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

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

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

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

After resigning as Treasury secretary in 1994, Bentsen and his wife; Beryl Ann (B.A.) Longino Bentsen, returned to Texas. Bentsen is survived by his wife, three children, Lloyd Bentsen III, Lan Bentsen and Tina Bentsen Smith; and eight grandchildren.