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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Lloyd Bentsen : A Democratic Leader Who Sees Politics as a 'Contact Sport'

July 15, 1990|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times. He interviewed the senator in his Capitol Hill office

WASHINGTON — Who says there are no second acts in American lives? Lloyd Bentsen may be about to embark on his fourth.

As a young World War II veteran and son of a prosperous rancher, Bentsen was sent to Congress to represent the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas in 1948, the year Harry S. Truman was elected President. Bentsen served three terms and looked to be headed for a long career in Washington, when he surprisingly pulled down the curtain on politics and opened act two of his life. He retired from Congress in 1955, spending the next 15 years in Texas, building a large financial holding company and building a family with his wife, B.A.--they now have three grown children.

But he was also building a base with the reigning Democratic powers and, in 1970, he began his third act. As the candidate of the conservative Democratic Establishment, he ousted populist Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough in a slash-and-burn primary that some Texas liberals still have not forgiven him for; in November, he blew past a Texas Republican congressman named George Bush to win election to the Senate.

After only one term, Bentsen jumped into the 1976 Democratic presidential race. But his promise to bring government and business together excited no one other than the occasional political scientist. He soon withdrew.

It appeared that Bentsen's ambitions had crested and there remained before him only the laborious accretion of power in the Senate. By the late 1980s, he had indeed become one of the most influential senators--chairman of the Finance Committee, an indefatigable defender of the oil industry and an inescapable presence on tax and trade concerns.

But then act four unexpectedly beckoned. Looking for reinforcement in the South, Michael S. Dukakis choose Bentsen as his running mate in 1988. If Dukakis demonstrated over the succeeding months that he was not ready for the big stage, Bentsen's dignified, even seigneurial, performance propelled him back into the ranks of serious Democratic presidential contenders. At 69, the slim, erect, silver-haired Bentsen has improbably emerged as one of the hottest properties in a party desperate for leadership.

Bentsen is moderate in his politics and careful in his speech--he measures each word as it leaves his lips as if savoring a fine wine. As politicians go, Bentsen is not a cuddly figure. But he projects implacable stability. After the pratfalls of the past three presidential elections, that may be an alluring combination for many punch-drunk Democrats in 1992.

Question: In your speech at the Democratic Leadership Council meeting, you gave a stern critique of the way Bush is handling both foreign and domestic affairs. That kind of talk has been relatively rare during this Administration. There has been a lot of grumbling among Democratic activists at the grass-roots level that the Democrats in Washington are spooked by Bush's popularity and are not being aggressive enough in taking him on. Has the Democratic leadership been too cautious?

Answer: No, I think that's pretty well the pattern for a President coming in. He's given a honeymoon period. There's no question that the President's polls are high. But that, I don't think, misleads him any more than it misled Daniel Ortega, who was way out in front in the polls, or Mike Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen, who, in August of '88, were way out in front in the polls. Those things can change overnight . . . .

The Republican Party is carrying a lot of the baggage of the past. You have the Cold War--for many Republicans it's not over yet . . . . You're seeing them walking away from a legacy that a Republican President--Eisenhower--left them on transportation. They have $10 billion there in the highway trust fund, and now they say, "Well, we're gonna move that (responsibility) down to the state and local (levels)--raise your taxes."

. . . . With the differences in the economies of the various states, you're going to have a major disparity in how the (states) address the transportation system in the country . . . . I look at (Republican) policies on trade, and they're acting as though we're in the same position we were after World War II--the totally dominant economic power of the world. Now we have a lot of people out there who are tough competitors, former allies of ours. The challenge now is not tanks, but economic competition. And there's much we have to do . . . . We have to get this deficit down. We have to increase incentives for savings in our country, like returning the Individual Retirement Account. We have to do more in the way of basic education--reading, writing and arithmetic.

Q: How optimistic are you that the budget talks will lead to a meaningful attack on the deficit?

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