Lloyd Bentsen: a truly great man

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The term "great man" is thrown around far too much in Washington, but Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a Texas Democrat, who died Tuesday at 85, fit that label.

Of course, he wasn't perfect. But no one is in politics. Bentsen was a giant in the Senate during his tenure there. In his presence, you knew this was a man who knew what he was doing.

Bentsen served in the House before making a fortune in south Texas. However, he never forgot his roots and the poor citizens of the Rio Grande Valley he served in the House.

When Bentsen was elected to the Senate in 1970 by defeating then Rep. George H.W. Bush, Republicans rushed to greet him. They thought that he was a conservative who had defeated liberal Democrat Sen. Ralph Yarborough in the primaries and that he would accommodate the GOP.

Bentsen nipped that idea immediately. He told a press conference that Vice President Spiro Agnew and other GOP leaders had visited Texas and given him hell. He owed the Republicans and President Nixon nothing.

Once in the Senate, he followed a moderate course and became friendly with senators in both parties. His knowledge of finance eventually took him to chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. He led that committee with wisdom and fairness.

In the 1988 presidential campaign, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts took Bentsen as his running mate. Don't blame Bentsen for the defeat of the ticket. Dukakis took full blame for blowing a huge lead and has praised Bentsen's role in that campaign. A high point came when Bentsen easily bested Republican Dan Quayle in the vice presidential debate.

Later, Bentsen served as President Clinton's first secretary of the treasury. He was disturbed by all the meetings the young Clinton staff called at the White House. One wag said Bentsen was the real grown-up in the crowd.

In the Senate, Bentsen had the best staff on the Hill. His administrative assistant, Loyd Hackler, was a former assistant White House press secretary to Lyndon Johnson and earlier had been a newspaper editor in Santa Fe, N.M., and Laredo, Texas. Hackler knew just about everybody and was a straight shooter in every respect.

Jack Devore, Bentsen's press secretary, was a favorite of the press. Bentsen kept him in the loop on all issues, and Devore was always helpful to media large and small. He came from a radio station in El Paso and appreciated the difficulties that reporters of smaller circulation newspapers and radio outlets face in their coverage.

Both Hackler and Devore have passed away and are still missed by friends in Washington and Texas.

Another Bentsen find was Jack Martin, who worked for the senator in Austin. Martin went on to organize a company called Public Strategies Inc. Its home base is Austin, but the company has national and international offices and employs 200 people. (Full disclosure: My youngest son, William, works for PSI in its Washington office.)

A final anecdote about Bentsen: When he took over the Senate Finance Committee, his office offered to meet over eggs and bacon for a fat fee with folks interested in a closed breakfast with the chairman. Once it was reported, Bentsen promptey killed the idea and said, "When I make a mistake, it is a real doozy."

Too bad some members in today's Congress don't say those words when they make a mistake.