Lloyd Bentsen - No Dan Quale
"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quale, 1988
Kids, I served with Lloyd Bentsen. I knew Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen was briefly a boss of mine. There are countless hacks in DC who're no Lloyd Bentsen either ... and never will be.
Senator Bentsen's most famous line, arguably the best put-down in modern political history, wasn't meant as a slam. It was pure, indignant outrage that someone so callow and inexperienced as Dan Quale would presume to compare himself to President John F. Kennedy. If you knew Lloyd Bensten, you knew that's what made the line so memorable and perfect.
Lloyd Bentsen wasn't a mean-spirited man. He was a patriot. A decorated World War II veteran. A Texas Democrat. A multimillionaire businessman from a distinguished family. A man of character and integrity. Really. Not words typically associated with millionaire Texas businessman.
Nothing about Lloyd Bentsen was typical. He was Southern to the core, but the antithesis of a Good Ole Boy. Except for the drawl and the twinkle in his eye. That was the dichotomy of the man.
Aristocratic but approachable. Reserved but relaxed. Dignified but 'down home.' Old fashioned but open -- to ideas, compromise and change. Lloyd Bentsen was the Silver Fox of the Senate, a consummate deal maker and coalition builder, persuading both sides of the aisle to work together and actually get things done.
When Bentsen agreed to run for vice president with Michael Dukakis against the first George Bush and Dan Quale, there are many who believed the democratic ticket was set up wrong -- it should have been Bentsen/Dukakis. I agree. Lloyd Bentsen would have been a superb president.
But I don't think he wanted it enough. Lloyd Bentsen struck me as a man who preferred the background to the limelight. The deal making to the backslapping. He was comfortable with anyone in any situation. But he didn't revel in the publicity and perks. His satisfaction came from getting the job done. The less fuss the better.
Lloyd Bentsen didn't have a cadre of handlers and sycophants either. He had a couple of close advisors, including his warm, charming and very smart wife, B.A. (Beryl Ann). He didn't stand on ceremony with those he liked and trusted. "Call me Lloyd," he'd say, and mean it. And if you called him 'Senator' anyway he'd give you a stern look, then a wink. "Lloyd," he'd insist. It wasn't an affectation. It was just ... Lloyd.
In addition to his small inner circle, Lloyd welcomed information, advice and support from new sources. You had to be sharp, focused, knowledgeable, hard working and--behind the scenes anyway--a Democrat to get his attention. But when you got it, you Really got it.
That's my most enduring memory of Lloyd Bentsen. He listened. He'd sit forward on his chair, leaning toward you, hands clasped, looking you square in the eye, nodding with encouragement and listening carefully to every word. Then he'd fire questions at you. Good ones. Point, counterpoint. Force you to make your case with authority and stand behind it.
None of us ever walked away from a conversation with Lloyd Bentsen without gaining more than we'd given. He didn't just talk a great game. He heard what others had to say and then played his own game, cleverly, fairly and very, very well.
We haven't seen his equal in a long time. And now, sadly, he's gone. We need more decent, honorable, savvy public servants like Lloyd Bentsen in our government, instead of the lying, dogma-driven, weasely Dan Quales we're stuck with now.
B.A. and the Bentsen family--and the country--have my deepest sympathy for the loss of a great man.