Lloyd Bentsen: Can Another Texan Apply?

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

Braniff Airlines’ flight number 11, a.k.a. the LBJ special, leaves Washington’s Dulles Airport each afternoon at 5:35 on a nonstop trip to Austin. The flight, which Braniff introduced with some reluctance during the heyday of the Pedernales, is now a steady earner, and it makes Austin the smallest far-off city with such direct connections to the capital.

On one Sunday afternoon last September, the day that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, a lean, distinguished-looking man in his early fifties waited to check in on flight 11. From the cut of his brown glen plaid suit and the detached, slightly impatient look on his face, he might have been a banker from Connecticut on his way to discuss investment possibilities in the computer industry, or an executive of the Rockefeller Foundation preparing for a conference at the University of Texas. He received no more attention than any of the several hundred other passengers in the terminal, which was unusual only because he, unlike anyone else in the building, was at work trying to become the next President of the United States.

Since the end of 1973, when he decided to spend a year finding out “whether a moderate from Texas has a shot at the Democratic nomination,” Lloyd M. Bentsen, junior senator from the Lone Star state, has spent a great deal of his time as he spent it that afternoon—in transit between one public appearance and the next. By Election Day, 1974, Bentsen had appeared in thirty-three states, and had delivered some one hundred and thirty speeches. On the weekend he flew to Texas, for example, he spoke in Indiana on Saturday, spent half an hour on national TV on Sunday morning appearing with Senator William Brock on Face the Nation, landed in Austin on Sunday evening, and on Monday morning was a major speaker at the Southern Governors’ Conference; there he walked over to George Wallace’s wheelchair to shake hands as the TV cameras rolled. He can please a crowd, and did on this occasion. But in his speeches, and even more so in his private conversation, he foxily avoids the specific commitment or the revealing observation (on or off the record) that might prove embarrassing.

During the first week in October, Bentsen spoke in Lansing, Michigan, on Friday, in Wichita, Kansas, on Saturday, in San Antonio on Sunday morning, and in Dallas on Sunday night; he flew back to Washington on Monday, departed that night for Atlanta, taped another debate with Senator Brock on Tuesday morning, and on Tuesday afternoon addressed a meeting of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Miami.

Through this year of physical and financial depletion (at one point in late summer, Bentsen’s advance calendar showed a total of five free nights before the election; and much of a special $365,000 campaign fund has gone into the year’s effort), Bentsen was not technically “running.” What he was doing, he said, was deciding whether to run, conducting a sort of test marketing that would enable him to make his final decision at the beginning of the new year. If, as has seemed certain since the withdrawal of Teddy Kennedy, Bentsen becomes a starter in this year of the dark horse, his campaign will be one of the more fascinating. Its fascination is not that Bentsen is a probable—or at this moment even plausible—victor, but that his type of presidential politicking recalls something fifteen years past. Different inheritors have appropriated different portions of the “Kennedy legacy”—the looks and style passed on to the two brothers; the reputation for social concern taken over by assorted liberals; the tough-guy outlook on world affairs a tragic bequest to Lyndon Johnson. But at least one part, the part evoked by phrases like “tough-minded,” “hard-boiled,” “pragmatic,” is riding with Lloyd Bentsen this year.

The predominant fact about Bentsen’s national campaign is that he lacks a national identity; in mid-1974, the Harris Poll gave him a name-recognition figure of about 2 percent. But the problem is more profound than simply not being well known, for Lloyd Bentsen’s past is private. Before he was elected to the Senate four and a half years ago, Bentsen had spent the greater part of his adult years in the closed world of Houston high finance. Unlike Scoop Jackson, who has been in Congress for thirty-four years, or Walter Mondale, who won statewide office in 1960, or even Morris Udall, who entered the House in 1961, Bentsen’s record is a short one indeed. Save for his geographic identity as a Texan, no great advantage so soon after the Johnson years, Bentsen carries the handicap of anonymity—and the corresponding advantage of being able to create an identity ex nihil.

The way in which national anonymity can be an advantage is illustrated by Bentsen’s position in Texas, where his well-known background is actually his greatest handicap. Bentsen’s modest senatorial prominence has made him stronger at home now than he has ever been before, but there are still those who bear him an abiding mistrust. Generally they cite three reasons.

The first is his family background, for like a hard-boiled candidate of another day, John F. Kennedy, Bentsen first entered politics backed by his father’s fortune, the accumulation of which has been a matter of public controversy. The elder Bentsen, Lloyd Sr., moved with his brother Elmer from South Dakota to the Texas Valley (the state’s southern tip) in the 1920s, where the two soon made a fortune in the “immigrant land business.” In theory this meant nothing more than selling land to people from far away, but in practice it often involved greeting a trainload of Minnesotans, escorting them through acres of sunny citrus land, and then selling them land identical in every respect save a lack of water rights. Virtually worthless land, that is to say. In 1950, dissatisfied customers began filing the first of several dozen lawsuits against the elder Bentsens, alleging conspiracy and fraud. The plaintiffs in the first test case, a couple from Iowa named Polmateer, claimed that they had paid $525 per acre for land worth, at most, one fifth that amount. The judge ruled in their favor, and ordered the elder Bentsens to refund the Polmateers in full. In another case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the elder Bentsens could properly be sued to determine whether they had violated a federal statute. Shortly thereafter, the Bentsens began settling most subsequent cases out of court. At no time has anyone accused Lloyd Jr. of involvement in his father’s and uncle’s affairs, but his first excursion into politics was financed by his father’s money.

After attending the University of Texas Law School (he has no undergraduate degree) and receiving decorations for flying fifty missions as a pilot in World War II, Bentsen returned to what had become the family’s political fiefdom, and in 1946 was elected county judge. Two years later, in 1948, he was elected to Congress, and, at age twenty-seven, was the youngest member that year.

The second of Bentsen’s burdens is his strong identification with the big-money, Texas-Tory branch of the Democratic party, dominated by John Connally before his Republican conversion, and associated (though never contentedly) with Lyndon Johnson. Although Bentsen has supported Johnson and Connally, and in turn been supported by them (Connally urged him to make his 1970 run for the Senate; in 1971, Johnson went so far as to say that Bentsen might be “the greatest senator Texas has ever had”), it would be a mistake to take either of them as a model for how Bentsen might perform in or around the White House. Connally and Johnson both made themselves into rich men, but both of them were born poor, Connally poorer than Johnson. Like Connally, wheeling and dealing, Johnson often radiated with a “joie de con.” But even during his darkest days in the White House, no one could accuse Johnson of being merely a manipulator. There was too much of the elemental man in him to justify so simplistic a label, and he retained his commitment to the New Deal to the end. All of these ingredients—passion, ideology, and the hustler’s glee—seem absent from Bentsen’s managerial makeup.

In his brief service in the House, Bentsen was a consistent if unsophisticated conservative, with a generally unremarkable record. He must live today with one of the few remarkable statements he made, his recommendation on July 12, 1950, that the United States give the North Koreans one week’s warning and then hit them with atomic bombs. Although he was unopposed in all his races for re-election, Bentsen decided to leave the House in 1954 “to establish financial independence” for himself and his family—his wife, Beryl Ann (nicknamed B.A.), and his children, Lloyd III, Lan, and Tina, whose ages now range from thirty to twenty-three.

He accomplished his goal quickly in the insurance business. By the time he ran against Yarborough, he was president of Lincoln Consolidated, a large holding company with extensive insurance interests, and his personal worth was $2.3 million.

Bentsen remained on the periphery of politics during these years but was clearly affiliated with the Connally camp. He supported Connally in his various races for the governorship, and at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Beryl Ann Bentsen sat between Connally and Jake Jacobsen in the Texas delegation. Connally urged Bentsen to run for the governorship in 1968, and two years later played an important part in his successful race for the Senate. Indeed, Bentsen was the last Texas politician Connally successfully anointed before going on to Republicanism and disgrace.

The 1970 election is the third and most inflammatory item on Bentsen’s critics’ list, not because he beat George Bush, then a Republican congressman, in the general election, but because he eliminated the incumbent senator, Ralph Yarborough, in the Democratic primary. Yarborough had left fences unmended, and might well have fallen to Bush, but he was the Texas liberals’ hero, the only one of their number to hold major office, and as such, a perfect candidate for martyrdom. Bentsen played his role in this martyr’s drama to perfection, running an expensive, slick campaign which made heavy use of TV spots, and taking a gloves-off, Agnewesque position on all the divisive social issues. He pounded Yarborough on busing, school prayer, and—in what Bentsen’s own men called the “World War III” spot—antiwar protest. This last commercial, which has entered the mythology of Texas politics, depicted civil disorder and generalized mayhem, followed by Lloyd Bentsen’s calm voice reminding the voters that Yarborough had supported the moratorium, and asking whether this was the kind of representation Texans really wanted.

The ads were not so much dishonest as they were demagogic, and on Bentsen’s side it may be said that Yarborough engaged in a little demagoguery of his own about the Bentsen family history. After the primary, Bentsen engaged in enough reconciliation to enlist such liberals as Barbara Jordan, the black congresswoman from Houston who was then a state senator, to his side. He beat Bush by a 53 to 47 margin. Nonetheless, such was the residue of the primary campaign that the Nixon Administration, which had sent its big guns to Texas on Bush’s behalf, embraced Bentsen after his victory in the fall as part of its “ideological majority.”

As soon as he arrived in the Senate—as soon, that is, as his record as a national politician began—Bentsen took pains to rid himself of the right-wing image the campaign had given him. In one of his first speeches as a senator, he formally rejected the Administration’s embrace, saying that he was an “establishment man” who believed in four establishments: the United States of America, the United States Senate, the State of Texas, and the Democratic party. This was the first step in a dance Bentsen has been practicing ever since: a flattering pas toward his partners on either side, a coy step back from the extreme. On nearly every issue of symbolic importance to the liberals, the constituency farthest from his natural base, Bentsen has taken a “correct” position. In his first few months in Congress, he voted to restrict the right to filibuster, one of the few Old South senators ever to do so; shortly thereafter, he fought Senator John Stennis to reduce funding for the Trident submarine. He voted against the SST, he has sponsored mass-transit legislation, and he has even taken his distance from big oil, sponsoring a variety of proposals to restrict the major companies in favor of the smaller, independent operators.

No one should imagine, Bentsen says, that this amounts to a calculated drive to the center: “It’s some of those fellows out in left field who had to move.” I asked him whom he meant. He wouldn’t say. “Gary Hart?” I asked. He gave me a small grin—a rare departure from his customary noncommittal caution. Still, it is interesting to compare Bentsen’s positions on these well-publicized issues with some of his less famous votes. Ronnie Dugger of the Texas Observer has done just that, and last September listed a dozen recent votes in which Bentsen lined up with the other senator from Texas, the extremely conservative John Tower. The votes included restoration of the death penalty (both senators for) and opening up the FBI’s files (both senators against). “We know why Tower casts such votes,” Dugger concluded, “but he is not running for the Democratic nomination for President.”

Bentsen’s smart, carefully balanced performance has not only put him in the running with a national constituency which might otherwise have considered him an uptown version of Russell Long, but also helped him to a position of some respect within the Senate. Bentsen has not, in four years’ time, become a backstage titan at the Capitol, but he has won compliments from the likes of Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (“an extremely impressive senator with a bright future”), Minority Leader Hugh Scott (“a heavyweight”), and Spencer Rich, congressional reporter for the Washington Post, who has written several flattering stories with headlines like “Soft-Spoken Bentsen Gains Wide Respect In the Senate.” The most tangible evidence of his influence occurred last summer, with the passage of the most important legislation protecting the pension rights of employees of private companies ever enacted. For years, similar bills had been approved by the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, and for years they had died in the Finance Committee, but this time Bentsen—as an insurance man, a master of the bill’s actuarial minutiae—nursed the bill through Finance to passage. In mid-1973, Bentsen’s reputation as a “workhorse” was beginning to spread among some of his fellow senators and he began entertaining the notion that 1976 might be his year. To conduct his one-year trial heat, Bentsen had two preliminary arrangements to make. The first was to find the money—$365,000, all of it raised at a $200-per-plate affair in Houston late in 1973. The second was to hire a campaign staff, now working under the direction of Ben Palumbo, a former aide to Senator Harrison Williams. With the machinery ready, Bentsen began his test campaign, setting himself four goals to reach by Election Day, 1974.

The first, according to Palumbo, was to “make the senator a familiar personality to the Democratic party structure nationally”—to expose him not to the voters, but to the party regulars. In this effort, Bentsen has made good use of his position as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which gave him an official reason to speak in each of the thirty-three states where Democrats were running for the Senate.

The second was to have the senator taken seriously by the national press. Outside his home state, Bentsen has received almost no critical coverage; recently he has been mentioned quite favorably in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and many others.

The third was to “have him become a familiar face and personality to the regional print and electronic media.” To this end Bentsen has appeared on talk shows across the country and has met for informal discussion with the editorial boards of several major papers.

Finally, Bentsen hoped to identify himself with economic issues—not in the gadfly’s role, like a Galbraith or a Proxmire, but as a solid, serious policy-maker, and as a party spokesman. Bentsen’s important breakthrough in this area occurred last July, when he convinced the Senate Democratic Policy Committee that he should give the party’s televised rebuttal to President Nixon’s economic message. It was a tub-thumping attack on Republican management of the economy, and variations on it have become his standard speech. “I want to talk about the price of food, about the cost of buying a house. About good times and bad times. In short, about our national economy, and the way it affects your household.” And so he does, conjuring up the traditional specter of the Republicans as the party of depression.

As Palumbo and his staff see it, Bentsen not only hit all four of his targets, but did so months before the deadline. Unless Bentsen is weighing factors he has not revealed, the go-ahead is certain. While none of his campaign strategists say he is going to win, several suggest how he could: Scoop Jackson will keep putting his foot in his mouth and continue to lose support; the George Wallace camp will realize that their man is a nonstarter, and will see Bentsen as their next best hope; the Kennedy voters will disperse among the candidates rather than swinging en masse to Mondale; the Mondale campaign will not catch fire; and, in the middle of a split and tumultuous convention, all eyes will turn to the cool and confident man from Texas.

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.

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