With the passing of former U.S. senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. last week, the nation lost someone who was influential on the political stage for more than two decades. As a native of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, however, Bentsen represented something greater than that.
The story of Lloyd Bentsen Jr.’s life was the classic success story — one of a poor family’s advancement through risk-taking, hard work and education.
Bentsen’s roots extend to Scandinavia by way of the upper Midwest. His grandfather, Peter Bentsen, was an immigrant from Denmark who drove for 17 days to relocate to Texas in 1918. He and his wife arrived penniless, but there was opportunity there.
Peter became a land agent for citrus developer John Shary and, joined by his sons Lloyd Sr. and Elmer, the Bentsen family eventually became prominent landholders that included the Pride O Texas citrus operation and massive Arrowhead Ranch. Their business empire extended to land development and banking as well.
It was that privileged background — one that several obituaries described as “patrician” — in which Lloyd Jr. was raised. Building on the success of one’s elders is far from guaranteed, but nearly everything — from school to military to business to politics — that Lloyd Jr. touched turned to gold.
He graduated high school at the tender age of 15 and the man whose father had left school behind at 13 headed for Austin to attend the University of Texas. There he obtained his law degree in 1942 and met and married Beryl Ann “B.A.” Longino.
Bentsen enlisted in the Air Force and served in Europe as a B-24 bomber pilot, where he served admirably, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross before retiring as a colonel in 1945.
When he returned to Texas, he put his good looks, elegant demeanor and sharp mind to use in launching his political career. He was elected county judge of Hidalgo County in 1946, still just 25 years old.
In 1948, Bentsen entered the national stage, being elected to Congress, where he quickly became a protege of legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn.
His political philosophy, cured by his Texas upbringing and Rayburn’s pragmatism, was beginning to take shape. It included an appreciation for economic opportunity and the business world that would lead to his being derisively labeled as a “Tory Democrat” by the Democratic Party progressive wing. The bilingual Bentsen also possessed a fair-mindedness toward minorities that would distinguish him from Southern Democrats. (Bentsen was one of just seven congressmen from the old Confederacy who voted in 1949 to outlaw the poll tax.)
He left Congress for the private sector in 1955, displaying the same acumen that he showed in the public sector. Bentsen established Lincoln Consolidated, an insurance and financial holding company that he sold for $22 million when he re-entered politics in a big way in 1970.
He used business backing to unseat U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarbrough, a liberal icon, in the Democratic primary and then defeated in the general election future President George H.W. Bush.
The Senate put Bentsen’s attention to details and understanding of the financial world to good use for more than 20 years, as he carved a moderate record that included the crafting of pension reform, various budget and tax packages, and support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and Panama Canal treaty. Though he worked well with the other side of the aisle, he eventually earned the acceptance of the liberal wing of his party.
Known more for his dignified, workmanlike approach and bipartisanship than for monumental legislation or flashy speech-making, Bentsen’s moment of fame for the rest of the country came during the 1988 presidential campaign. He was the moderate Washington veteran running mate intended as a counterbalance to the liberal Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts when, during a televised debate, he delivered a classic zinger to his vice presidential opponent, Republican Sen. Dan Quayle.
Quayle, criticized for his inexperience, noted that he had more time in Washington than John Kennedy did when he became president. Without a second’s hesitation, Bentsen replied, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
That race was a desperate failure for the Democrats but, even then, Lloyd Bentsen showed a golden touch.