The memorial service for former Senator Lloyd Bentsen was held yesterday. Among the more than 60 honorary pallbearers were former presidents Clinton and Bush; three former secretaries of state — Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Madeleine Albright; former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan; Michael Dukakis; and Lady Bird Johnson.
Bentsen is well remembered for the line he delivered at Dan Quayle’s expense during the 1988 vice presidential debate — “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Although the line arguably was a bit of a cheap shot, it turns out that Bentsen had some Jack Kennedy in him. Bruce Bartlett points out that, in 1980 under Bentsen’s leadership, the Joint Economic Committee issued a report that helped pave the way for Reagan’s supply side revolution by recommending a tax cut as part of a strategy of getting inflation under control. President Kennedy, of course, had been responsible for a hugely successful tax cut, but since his time tax cutting had enjoyed little appeal within his party. Bentsen momentarily reversed that trend.
Later, as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, Bentsen was instrumental in developing and implementing a plan that expanded our trade with Mexico. He also developed and implemented an aid package that helped stabilize Russia. Both programs represented the internationalist tradition of John Kennedy, and both run against the grain of current Democratic party thinking.
The death of Lloyd Bentsen gives us occasion to mourn not just his passing but also the demise of a non-reactionary, forward thinking Democratic party.