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You're no St. Peter...

For those of us old enough to remember that great debate...

Ex-Senator, VP Candidate Bentsen Dies

May 23, 2006

Former Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, the courtly Texan who famously put down vice presidential rival Dan Quayle in a 1988 debate by telling him "you're no Jack Kennedy," died Tuesday. He was 85.

Bentsen, who represented the state in Congress for 28 years, died at his Houston home, his family said. He had been under a doctor's care since a pair of strokes in 1998.

Bentsen's political career took him from a county judgeship in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1940s to six years in the U.S. House, 22 years in the Senate and two years as President Clinton's first treasury secretary.

A shrewd legislative operator, he maneuvered with ease in Democratic and Republican circles alike on Capitol Hill, displaying expertise on tax, trade and economic issues as well as foreign affairs.

"The state of Texas has had great senators but no senator has ever been a better senator than Lloyd Bentsen," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered flags at state buildings flown at half-staff for five days.

"Today we mourn the loss of a war hero and true Texas leader who earned the respect of the nation with his dedication to public service," Perry said in a statement.

President Bush said in a statement that he and his family were saddened by Bentsen's death.

"During his time in Congress, he was known for his integrity and for seeking bipartisan solutions," the president said. "Lloyd Bentsen was a man of great honor and distinction."

In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis tapped Bentsen as his running mate while the GOP nominee, Vice President George Bush, chose Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana.

In their Oct. 5, 1988, vice presidential debate, Quayle said: "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."

Quayle had made similar comments before and Bentsen was prepared.

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy," Bentsen said. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

The Dukakis-Bentsen ticket lost 40 states — including Texas — to the Bush-Quayle team.

"I have lost a valued friend and wonderful running mate. The nation has lost a great public servant," Dukakis said Tuesday.

Despite his stately reserve, Bentsen liked to recall a youth of derring-do. He recalled that when he was in Army flight training during World War II, he took a plane too far into a dive and barely avoided a crash. He thought he had gotten away with it until the trainer found corn cobs stuck to the plane.

He later flew 50 bomber missions over Europe.

After the war, the 25-year-old scion of a wealthy Rio Grande Valley family was elected Hidalgo County judge in 1946.

Two years later, he moved to the House. In his first term, Bentsen was one of a handful of Southern congressmen who opposed the poll tax that was used to keep blacks from voting.

After the House, he returned to private life in Houston, where he founded and operated a financial holding company with the help of several million dollars in seed money from his family.

In 1970, he successfully challenged liberal Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough, then went on to defeat the elder Bush for the first of four Senate terms.

He had few missteps in his career. The most prominent was in 1987, when it became known that the newly installed chairman of the Senate Finance Committee had solicited $10,000 campaign contributions from lobbyists in exchange for once-a-month breakfasts with him. He returned the money and apologized for a "doozy" of a mistake.

Less than a month into his two-year tenure as treasury secretary, Bentsen had to deal with the botched raid on the Branch Davidian complex outside Waco by his department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He also faced questions about the Treasury's role in handling a failed Arkansas savings and loan involved in the Whitewater investigation.

The setbacks were offset by the high marks Bentsen won for his smooth dealings with Congress. Clinton gave him a higher profile than other treasury secretaries had enjoyed, taking Bentsen with him for his first summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and deferring to his judgment on budget deliberations.

When Bentsen announced his retirement, Clinton said: "By any stead, he ranks as one of the outstanding economic policymakers in this country since World War II."

Clinton gave Bentsen the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1999.

Bentsen "excelled as a husband, father and citizen, with his unique combination of intelligence, judgment, strength and dignity," Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Tuesday in a statement.

Bentsen's final career was with the powerful Washington law firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand.

Former U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Texas, said his uncle insisted on maintaining some sort of public life, even after two strokes put him in a wheelchair.

"I know the strokes drove him straight up the wall," Bentsen said. "But he kept appearing at events. It was hard on my aunt, and hard on him, but it was that important to him."

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, B.A. Longino of Lufkin; three children and their spouses, and eight grandchildren.
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