HOUSTON – Former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was a conservative Democrat who had a "massive, positive impact" during his two years as treasury secretary in one of the country's most economically challenging times, former President Clinton told about 1,200 mourners Tuesday.
Clinton was accompanied by his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, at the memorial service at First Presbyterian Church, held after a private graveside service for Bentsen's family.
Bentsen, who represented Texas in Congress for 28 years and was Clinton's first treasury secretary, died at his Houston home May 23 at age 85. He had been under a doctor's care and in a wheelchair since suffering two strokes in 1998.
Bentsen, the running mate of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election, was "one of the very few candidates for the vice presidency in the history of the republic who lost and came out better than he went in," Clinton said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
As Clinton's first treasury secretary, serving from 1993-94, Bentsen was instrumental in developing the country's economic plan and in passing the plan to expand trade relations with Mexico, Clinton said.
"It's still a controversial issue, but I ask you to think how much more complex and difficult this immigration debate would be today" if that plan had not been approved, Clinton said.
Bentsen also is credited with helping pass a plan providing billions to help Russia's economy as it teetered on financial collapse and could have "started the Cold War all over again," Clinton said.
"It (the aid) was opposed by 76 percent of the American people, but Lloyd knew it was right, and we got it through," Clinton said. "I say this just to remind you that in two short years that as the secretary of the treasury, he had a massive positive impact on people here at home and all around the world."
Bentsen stepped down after two years to spend more time with family.
"In the end, he valued heart and spirit and soul more than mind, connection and achievement," Clinton said. "And when you come to the end of a person's life, all that's left is what you hold in your heart."
Taking their seats before the service were former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, former Secretary of State James Baker, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, former House Speaker Jim Wright, and U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn of Texas. Many of them wore yellow roses on their lapels.
Wright, a Democrat, and Republican DeLay shook hands as they took their seats.
Clinton was among the more than 60 honorary pallbearers. That group also included former President Bush; former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, Baker and Henry Kissinger; former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan; Lady Bird Johnson; former Texas Govs. Bill Hobby and Ann Richards; and Southwest Airlines Chairman Herb Kelleher.
In 1999 Clinton gave Bentsen the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Although Bentsen was in a wheelchair, "he still had that light in his eyes," Clinton said.
Bentsen, who flew 50 bomber missions over Europe during World War II, began his political career in 1946 when he was elected Hidalgo County judge. He served in the U.S. House from 1948-55 and in the Senate from 1971-93. He made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.