Lloyd Bentsen: Can Another Texan Apply?

A "cool cat" from Texas seeks out the Democratic nomination

Perhaps. Perhaps. Bentsen does have several undeniable advantages—his proven access to big money, the demonstrated efficiency of his campaign organization, and the propitious timing of his emergence as an economic wise man. But his several disadvantages suggest another, which is as unlucky in its timing for Bentsen as the economic issue is fortunate. That is the vague quality known as “character.”

Judgments in this area are clearly speculative and should be labeled as such. But as our presidencies have become reigns rather than administrations, making guesses about the character of potential Presidents seems a risk worth taking.

The difficulty in Bentsen’s case is that he offers precious little for examination. Apart from his four years in the Senate, his record consists of a long-past, probably irrelevant interlude as a congressman, and a very recent, very relevant half-lifetime as a businessman. Those years in Houston—when Bentsen aged from thirty-four to forty-nine, when he was transformed from the hollow-cheeked boy of the congressional campaign photos into the elegant champion of the boardroom, when he began as a millionaire’s son and finished as a millionaire himself—must offer many clues, but the clues are hidden.

From the limited evidence of Bentsen’s public record, a few tentative conclusions can be drawn. Fifteen years ago, in a discussion of the Kennedy-Nixon race, a writer named Robert Fitch said that both candidates exemplified the politics of the “cool cat.” “The essence of the cool cat is that he is controlled rather than committed; that is, he is self-controlled, rather than controlled by ideals to which he has given himself.” As it turned out, of course, he was wrong about Nixon, who gave over his control not to ideals, but to inner demons; but he was close to the truth about Kennedy, and even closer about Bentsen. If there is a single way to characterize Bentsen’s actions in public life, it is to say that at each point his decision has been the smart thing to do. Not necessarily the principled thing, or the brave thing, or even the conservative thing—although each of those terms may apply in certain cases. Ideology, emotion, even personal pique, have taken subsidiary places to the dispassionate logic of this modern “cool cat.”

Bentsen’s personal bearing is in keeping with his political philosophy; it is absolutely lucid and absolutely cold. His first words to me, as I settled down next to him in the airplane and started asking him questions, were, “How long is this going to take? Can we get it over with as quickly as possible?” In public he is less abrupt: Both friends and enemies agree that on a platform and in a crowd he is far more graceful, far less strained since he went to the Senate than he was in the 1970 campaign. Still, as a member of his staff put it, “I think everyone realizes he won’t ever have John Connally’s gift of charming the man in the street, or Lyndon Johnson’s delight in pressing the flesh.” In the course of an admittedly limited exposure to him, the one evidence of “human” frailty I observed was his decision, after some hesitation and with apparent regret, to have a dessert helping of cherries jubilee. The comments of his friends—such as they are, for he is not a man who has intimates—suggests that this impression was not far wrong. “Lloyd never unwinds,” says a Texan who has worked with him in politics (and who, like nearly all of Bentsen’s associates, refused to be quoted by name). “He relaxes, of course, but his mind never loses that pitch.” Another man, who has worked with him in Congress, says, “He is unencumbered, by people, ideas, anything.”

Bentsen’s self-control is almost palpable. He does not smoke. Since coming to Washington, according to his press secretary, Jack DeVore, he “generally restricts his drinks to sherry.” Even in his recreations—tennis, raising roses, collecting objets d’art—Bentsen does not go slack. The same Texan who says Bentsen never unwinds recalls that during the 1970 campaign, Bentsen would scrupulously set aside his Sunday mornings for a tennis match. “He was a ferocious competitor. He was going to beat the pants off you or know the reason why. Now that he’s in politics, he has the same determination to be the best, to rise to the top. But if he doesn’t make it, it’s not going to wound him. He knows who he is, and doesn’t need political power to survive.” “He has very few hangups,” says another political associate. “He doesn’t judge things on the basis of who he is supposed to be, or what his family was, or what everyone else expects him to do. He really does judge on the facts.”

Such dispassion has its attractions especially for a presidential candidate. A man not shackled to ideology might have an easier time cutting his losses than Johnson had in Vietnam. (”Lloyd can get angry about mistakes, but he is the first one to admit his own errors,” says a member of his staff.) A man less interested in symbolic showcases than in tangible results might pass fewer pieces of “landmark” legislation, and instead find out how to make the laws on the books work. A man with managerial experience as extensive as Bentsen’s might be a less easy victim of the corrupting influence of the White House culture than previous Presidents have been. A man with as firm a sense of his own identity and competence as Bentsen’s might not be tortured, as was Nixon, by enemies real and imagined, or distorted, as was Johnson, by notions of how a Texan should handle the Ivy League advisers around his table. “Is it difficult,” I asked him, “to run as a Texan, when memories of LBJ are so fresh in the public mind?” Bentsen replied, “When people meet me, they see I’m very different.”

But the “cool cat” has his shortcomings too, not least because some small, foreign element of illogic of character, remains beneath even the most controlled exterior. Kennedy and Nixon demonstrated this in their different ways; Kennedy with his defensive, he-man reactions in foreign policy, Nixon in fashions too obvious to mention. It is reasonable to assume that Bentsen, too, has a heart, that he believes in something more than he has revealed, that we cannot judge him solely on his logic. We may not need to know what our Presidents make for breakfast, or what clothes their children wear, but we do deserve a look at the moral baggage they carry.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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