Lloyd Millard Bentsen

Lloyd Millard Bentsen (born 1921), senior United States senator from Texas, was Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1988, sharing the unsuccessful ticket with Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and secretary of the Treasury from 1993-1994.

Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen was the political surprise of the 1988 presidential campaign, distinguishing himself as the candidate who established a genuine rapport with millions of voters disillusioned with the general election campaign waged by the Democratic and Republican (GOP) presidential candidates. Bentsen was the "star of the campaign," according to one political observer, even though his position on most major political issues placed him closer to the GOP than to the Democratic Party which nominated him for the nation's second highest office.

Lloyd Millard Bentsen, Jr., the son of Lloyd M. Bentsen, Sr., and Edna Ruth (Colbath) Bentsen, was born in Mission, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley on February 11, 1921. Lloyd Senior, the son of Danish immigrants who had originally settled in South Dakota, migrated to the Rio Grande Valley during World War I and began the citrus farming and real estate investing which became the basis for the Bentsen family fortune, conservatively estimated at $50 million.

Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., grew up in McAllen, Texas; received a law degree from the University of Texas in 1942; and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private. Assigned to the Army Air Force, Bentsen rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel while flying 50 missions over Europe. After returning to the Rio Grande Valley as a war hero, Bentsen was elected judge of Hidalgo County in 1946. Two years later he ran for the South Texas congressional seat. Bentsen recalled how upon hearing of the congressional campaign of another young war veteran, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, he obtained Kennedy's campaign literature. Bentsen substituted the P.T. boat silhouette with a cutout of a B-24 bomber, similar to the one he commanded during the war, and distributed the campaign literature as his own. The strategy was successful and Bentsen at the age of 28 became the youngest member of Congress.

Congressman Bentsen soon established an eclectic voting record that would come to typify the remainder of his political career, alternatively liberal and conservative on social issues but decidedly conservative on military and foreign affairs. Bentsen, for example, voted for a repeal of the poll tax, but opposed a ban on discrimination in federal employment. In 1950, after the North Korean invasion of South Korea, he proposed that President Harry S Truman give North Korea one week to withdraw from the South or "be subjected to atomic attack by our Air Force." And in 1954 he called for American intervention in Indochina on the side of France.

In 1954 Bentsen announced he was leaving Congress to make his fortune. "I could not make ends meet," he told an interviewer, on his then $12,500 annual congressional salary. Three weeks later Bentsen chartered the Consolidated American Life Insurance Company with $7 million provided by his father. Consolidated American Life eventually evolved into Lincoln Consolidated Inc., a holding company which controlled mutual funds, oil companies, a savings and loan association, and a funeral home. Bentsen, as its chief executive officer, had by 1970 an annual income of $80,000.

Now financially secure, Bentsen reentered politics, declaring, "I wanted to do something more with my life, to be remembered for something more than my financial statement." The opportunity came in 1970 when he challenged Senator Ralph Yarborough in the Democratic primary election. Concerned about the defection of conservative wealthy Democrats to the growing Republican Party, former Governor John Connally convinced Bentsen that the defeat of Yarborough, a Populist politician, was imperative if conservatives were to retain their political control of the party and the state. Bentsen defeated Yarborough by portraying the senator as a big-spending, anti-Vietnam War radical out of touch with Texas political opinion and then beat Houston Congressman (and future President) George Bush in a general election campaign that showed fewer philosophical or political differences between the candidates of the opposing parties than the candidates in the Democratic primary.

After the death of Lyndon Johnson in 1973 and the defection of John Connally to the Republicans, Bentsen quickly assumed the leadership of the state Democratic Party in Texas. Three years later he sought the Democratic presidential nomination. Styling himself a "Truman Democrat," Bentsen hoped to win Southern voters, but was eliminated by two other Southerners, former governors Jimmy Carter and George Wallace.

Lloyd Bentsen was more successful as a political strategist and fundraiser. As chief architect of the Senate Democrats' 1986 campaign strategy, he was credited with the party's winning of five new Senate seats. He was by far the most effective fundraiser in Congress, having amassed $5 million for his 1988 Senate reelection campaign; his donors included powerful corporate interests inside and outside Texas.

Although 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis and Bentsen differed on aid to the Contras (anti-government forces in Nicaragua), support for school prayer, federal financing of abortions, and gun control, party strategists hoped the Texan's selection as the vice-presidential candidate would boost the national ticket in the Southwest by luring back conservative "Reagan Democrats" who voted against the party in 1980 and 1984. Bentsen originally was to have campaigned in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana to prevent landslide Republican victories in those states. However, his surprisingly strong appeal on the campaign trail and his outstanding performance in the national debate with Republican vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle persuaded party strategists to have Bentsen campaign throughout the nation. His presence on the ticket, however, did not help the Democrats carry the Southwest. Texans gave Bentsen, who ran simultaneously for reelection and the vice-presidency, a victory in his Senate race while voting almost by the same margin for the Bush-Quayle ticket in the national contest. Named chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee in 1987, the four-term senator remained an important national figure.

Bentsen considered running for president in 1992, but instead supported Bill Clinton. The two had worked together during the mid-1980s as co-founders of a moderate group called the Democratic Leadership Conference. During the campaign, Bentsen gave advice and assistance to Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and by now was considered an expert in financial, trade, and tax issues. Thus it was no surprise when Clinton appointed him secretary of the treasury beginning in January 1993. Although Bentsen was at first reluctant to give up his seat in Congress, he accepted the position. However, it was soon apparent that Bentsen was going to have troubles in this position. As Fred Barnes said in the New Republic, his "first year as treasury secretary wasn't exactly the epitome of cabinet clout." He was financially more conservative than Clinton. His advice to Clinton about an economic stimulus package was rejected, as was his opinion of Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care reform proposals.

Bentsen resigned his post as treasury secretary in December 1994. He commented that he had "felt like an outsider for 12 years" and was "tired of the gridlock." Since his resignation, Bentsen has been named to the board of directors of Continental Airlines (1996) and become chairman of the board of directors of New Holland N.V., an international manufacturer of agricultural equipment. Bentsen and his daughter, Tina Bentsen Smith, also serve on the selection committee of The Lloyd Bentsen Award, by which a $10,000 honorarium is awarded each year to a parent of a child with Down's syndrome. The purpose is to honor that parent for his or her continued support and advocacy of family-centered, community-based, coordinated care for children with Down's syndrome.


Further Reading on Lloyd Millard Bentsen

Discussions of Lloyd Bentsen's life and political accomplishments can be found in Elizabeth Drew, Election Journal: Political Events of 1987-1988 (1989) and in the New York Times Biographical Service, Vol. 18 (July 1988). His role in the 1988 election is detailed in Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars? (1989); the authors' approach is characterized in the subtitle: The Trivial Pursuit of the Presidency 1988. See also Who's Who in America (1996), Who's Who in the World (1996). Articles about Bentsen appear in Chicago Tribune (December 13, 1992); Dallas Morning News (December 10-11, 1992); National Review (December 31, 1994); and New Republic (February 28, 1994). For information about The Lloyd Bentsen Award, see the Web site for the Kelsey-Seybold Foundation at <http://www.ksfnd.org>.