Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was never one given to the clever quip or colorful anecdote. Buttoned-up and taciturn, he made a disastrous stab at a presidential run in 1976. Newspaper scribe Jack Germond once compared the Democrat to plate glass—substantial, but people just couldn't see it.
But during a 1988 vice presidential debate in Omaha, Bentsen delivered one of the most devastating slights ever. Turning to his GOP opponent, Sen. Dan Quayle, who had defended his inexperience as similar to that of John F. Kennedy, Bentsen responded with scathing disdain: "Senator," he said, "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."
The audience erupted. In that moment, Bentsen, on the ticket with presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, managed to remake his dry persona and earn himself a footnote in political history. "It's the best put-down I've ever seen," says Germond. But was Bentsen's flawless response to Quayle, then 41 and running with George H. W. Bush, rehearsed?
Yes and no, says Dennis Eckart, who helped Bentsen, then 67, prepare for the debate. An Ohio congressman at the time, Eckart ordered video of Quayle on the campaign trail. There was Quayle raking his fingers through his hair and posing witha h and thrust in his pocket—all, Eckart believed, conscious imitations of Kennedy. And the Indiana senator was comparing his years in Congress to those of Kennedy. On a legal pad, Eckart jotted: "The sob thinks he's JFK."
The answer. Eckart had to persuade Bentsen that Quayle could make the comparison during the debate. (Germond says that Quayle's advisers had told him not to use the Kennedy reference.) Once convinced, Bentsen "turned his whole body to me and said, 'I know John F. Kennedy. I waited for John F. Kennedy that fateful day. He's a friend of mine.'" Eckart said, "That's the answer."
Bentsen, who died in 2006, basked in the post-debate attention. A union in Philadelphia played the theme from Rocky when he arrived. He felt the moment redeemed his poor performance in 1976. But great lines don't win elections. Dukakis-Bentsen got creamed. Quayle was gracious: When he saw Eckart a few months later, he touched his former colleague's new beard and said, "I know Dennis Eckart..." You know the rest.