Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Former senator, Treasury chief Bentsen dies

Former senator, Treasury chief Bentsen dies
By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, who ran unsuccessfully for vice president in 1988, died on Tuesday at the age of 85, a family spokesman said.

Bentsen's tall stature and southern drawl gave him a gentlemanly air, but the Texas Democrat is perhaps best known for his verbal ferocity in denouncing his 1988 Republican opponent, Sen. Dan Quayle, as "no Jack Kennedy."

Bentsen had been in ill health since suffering two strokes in 1998 that left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak very well.

He came from a wealthy family in far south Texas and rose through the political ranks to become one of the last in a long line of powerful Democrats from the state, which now is dominated by Republicans.

Bentsen was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1970, ousting liberal incumbent Ralph Yarborough in the Democratic primary, then defeating Republican and future President George H.W. Bush in the general election.

Six years later, he made a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, but pulled out after losing in early caucuses to the eventual winner, Jimmy Carter.

Bentsen, a moderate, pro-business Democrat, chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee from 1987 through 1992.

When Bill Clinton became president the following year, he tapped Bentsen to be his Treasury secretary.

In 1988, Bentsen was the running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis when the Texan faced Quayle in a nationally televised vice presidential debate.

After the 41-year-old Quayle claimed to have as much experience in Congress as John Kennedy did when he ran for president, Bentsen, then 67, said scornfully: "Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

The exchange was regarded as devastating to Quayle, but the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket lost the election.

In Washington, politicians on both sides of the aisle praised Bentsen as a good public servant.

"During his time in Congress, he was known for his integrity and for seeking bipartisan solutions to issues facing our nation," President George W. Bush said in a statement.

The president said Bentsen was "a man of great honor and distinction" and that the entire Bush family was saddened by his death.

"Lloyd Bentsen's distinguished career earned him a reputation as a giant in Texas politics. He was a powerful voice for our state, and he will be deeply missed," said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas.

"I adored Lloyd Bentsen. He was such an extraordinary leader and public servant. He had a great presence that filled up any room he walked into," said U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"He and his wife B.A. are dear friends of ours and knew he wasn't doing well, but I'm just so sorry to hear we've lost him," she said.