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.