Twenty years ago, San Antonio city leaders asked Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) for help in building a freeway from downtown to the airport. Despite the opposition of the influential Howard H. Baker, then a Republican senator from Tennessee, Bentsen cleared the way for his constituents. Several years later, Baker wanted similar help for Memphis. Bentsen, then chairman of the Senate's highway subcommittee, pulled out a piece of paper, read aloud Baker's reasons for opposing the Texas highway project, then delivered enough proxy votes from members of the panel to kill Baker's request.
Don't be fooled by his soft-spoken, courtly demeanor. Lloyd Bentsen, 71, is one tough cookie. In 1977, for example, Bentsen quashed the nomination of a young Dallas Democrat named Martin Frost as U.S. Attorney in Dallas. Frost's sin? He had been the North Texas coordinator for Jimmy Carter, who had defeated Bentsen for the 1976 nomination. "The problem was, I supported the wrong guy--the guy who won the election, not the guy who controlled the patronage," Frost says. Still, when Frost unseated a Democratic congressman in the 1978 primary, "the first congratulatory call I got was from Senator Bentsen," he remembers. The two have worked closely since.
TURBULENCE. That's good news for Frost. Nearly five decades after turning up in Washington as a 27-year-old congressman from Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Bentsen is a savvy political insider, a cunning negotiator with a long memory, and a man you want on your side. Witness his two terms as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in 1974 and 1984. Though the terms were turbulent, coming on the heels of Watergate and Ronald Reagan's second-term triumph, Bentsen successfully raised money for a host of Democratic candidates--many of whom still rank as important allies.
There's no doubt that in Bentsen, Bill Clinton has selected a Treasury Secretary who can teach the new President a thing or two. Bentsen is fiercely competitive. That means he's likely to be an activist Treasury Secretary, involved in every deal from conception to closing. "He's a damn good negotiator," says one House Democratic leadership source. "He knows what he wants and how to get it."
The Texan hasn't always been so smooth. As a young congressman, Bentsen suggested that President Harry Truman drop an atomic bomb on North Korea. In his 1970 Senate primary race, he savaged liberal Democratic incumbent Ralph W. Yarborough, linking him to the antiwar rioters at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago--and leaving scars on the Texas party that persist even to this day.
And Bentsen's long career hasn't been without the occasional slipup. In 1987, Bentsen invited lobbyists to join a "breakfast club," where they could share eggs and small talk with the Finance Committee chairman in exchange for a $10,000 campaign contribution. In a glare of negative publicity, Bentsen dropped the plan.
Bentsen made his Senate mark during a 1979-80 stint as chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. Amid a surge toward supply-side Reaganism, he repudiated Democratic economic orthodoxy and embraced tax changes to stimulate investment and encourage savings. The normally contentious panel produced bipartisan reports for the only time in its history.
`IMPRESSIVE.' As Finance chairman, Bentsen has won the respect of Corporate America. Last year, Bentsen called then-General Motors Chairman Robert C. Stempel after GM officials had rebuffed requests from Governor Ann Richards and other state officials, who wanted to discourage him from closing a plant in Arlington, Tex. "We all had been unsuccessful, including the governor, until Senator Bentsen called," recalls Representative Frost. "Then, miraculously, Mr. Stempel fell all over himself to be cooperative. It was a very impressive show." Soon, GM said it would keep the Arlington line open.
President-elect Bill Clinton figures Bentsen is a man who can get his calls returned--on Capitol Hill, in the business community, and in foreign capitals. He had better also be counting on working with a Treasury Secretary who kicks butt, takes names, and gets things done.