When former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen died recently, much of the press coverage of his career focused on the exchange between him and Vice President Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice presidential debate.
There was much more to Lloyd Bentsen’s career than that one television sound bite, and I would like to focus on the “rest of the story.”
Lloyd Bentsen was an outstanding public servant and one of the finest United States senators from the state of Texas during the 20th century. He was a serious man who left a significant legislative record during his 22 years in the U.S. Senate and served with great distinction as Treasury Secretary during the first part of Bill Clinton’s term.
He also possessed a soft-spoken dry wit and was a major figure in holding the Texas Democratic Party together from 1970 to the mid l990’s.
My relationship with Sen. Bentsen started off somewhat awkwardly but blossomed into mutual respect and a true friendship. Let’s start in the beginning.
In 1976, Lloyd Bentsen ran for the Democratic nomination for president. I was a young lawyer in Dallas who supported one of the other candidates in the race…a peanut farmer form Georgia named Jimmy Carter. My candidate ultimately won the nomination and I managed the Carter-Mondale general election campaign for 25 percent of Texas (the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and l7 surrounding counties).
After Carter won, I asked to be considered for appointment as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas – a fairly common appointment at that time for young attorneys who had played a major role in a successful presidential campaign. Sen. Bentsen vetoed my appointment. It seems I had supported the guy who won, not the fellow who controlled local patronage.
Eighteen months later I defeated an incumbent Democratic Congressman in the primary. The first congratulatory call I received the next morning was from Lloyd Bentsen. He started off by saying, “You know, Martin, I’m responsible for your election to Congress.” I said, “How is that, Senator?” He replied, “If I had appointed you U.S. Attorney, you couldn’t have run this year.”
He, of course, was right.
In the years that followed, Sen. Bentsen and I became close allies on major legislation affecting Texas, and I always looked to him for leadership on key issues. He was one of the last of a vanishing breed…a political moderate in the South who was not an ideologue of the left or the right. He brought good judgment and practical common sense to issues affecting our state and our country.
Sen. Bentsen was the key author and driving force behind the ERISA law which set up a federal guarantee of corporate pension plans. The protection provided by this farsighted legislation is critical today in light of recent corporate bankruptcies.
Sen. Bentsen also stood up for the independent oil and gas producers in Texas who often have positions that are different from the major oil companies. He worked to make the 1986 tax reform more fair for our state even though he voted against it on final passage, as did a majority of our House delegation because of its unfair treatment for real estate and other key commercial interests in Texas.
But Lloyd did something just as important as his legislative work. He recognized and gave responsibility to a new generation of African American and Hispanic emerging leaders throughout Texas, giving them major roles in his campaigns and his official office.
And no one should forget that it was Lloyd Bentsen as Treasury Secretary who cajoled, pushed and encouraged the Clinton administration every step of the way to come up with a budgetary plan that eventually balanced the federal budget and gave us a few years of surpluses.
When Lloyd Bentsen retired from the Senate, he left an enormous void in Texas politics. He was the first truly modern politician in our state, putting large sums of his own campaign money into sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaigns that benefited other statewide and local Democrats.
Some observers have suggested that Gov. Ann Richards might have defeated George W. Bush for governor in 1994, if Bentsen had been running for re-election that year (his term was up) rather than giving up his seat in the Senate to serve in the Clinton cabinet.
And his dry wit…I will always remember the day Sen. Bentsen was asked about the AIDS epidemic and the need for “safe sex.” His reply was that his age, “safe sex” was not having a heart attack afterwards.
He was one of a kind and will be missed by all who knew him.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.