In fifteen months of combat, Bentsen flew thirty-five missions against many heavily defended targets including the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, which were critical to the Nazi war production. The 15th Air Force, to which the 449th Bomb Group was assigned, is credited with destroying all of the petroleum production within its range, which equated to about half of Germany's sources of fuel on the continent. Major Bentsen's unit also flew against communications centers, aircraft factories and industrial targets in Germany, Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Bentsen participated in bombing raids in support of the Anzio campaign and flew bombers against hard targets in preparation for the landing in southern France.
Bentsen was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the Army Air Corps' and now the Air Force's highest commendations for achievement or heroism in flight. In addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bentsen was awarded the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters. The Air Medal and each subsequent cluster award were awarded for completing specific numbers of combat missions. Before completing his military service, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
After the war, Bentsen returned to his native Rio Grande Valley. He served the people of his home area from 1946 to 1955, first as Hidalgo County Judge (a largely administrative post as opposed to judicial duties) before serving three successive terms in the United States House of Representatives. In each of his three campaigns for the House, Bentsen was unopposed in the general election. While sitting as a member of the House, Bentsen advocated using atomic weapons against North Korean cities if they did not withdraw north of the 38th parallel. In 1954, he declined to seek reelection and entered what was to become a prosperous career in business.
Later that year, Bentsen went on to win the general election when he was pitted against Congressman and future President George H. W. Bush. On election night, Bentsen beat Bush convincingly.
Wallace and Jackson were considered to be the two main contenders for the moderate to conservative voters to whom Bentsen would appeal; early in the campaign few foresaw Jimmy Carter of Georgia also effectively appealing to that group.
By October 1975 Bentsen, generating little national attention or significance in the polls, scaled back his campaign to a limited effort in areas of 8 to 10 states, hoping for a deadlocked convention. In the first state contest Bentsen vigorously contested, he managed only 1.6% of the vote in Mississippi. Two weeks later Bentsen staked the remainder of his campaign and resources in neighboring Oklahoma but finished third with only 12%. A few days later Bentsen shut down his national campaign, staying in the race only as a favorite son in Texas. However, in the May 1, 1976, primary Jimmy Carter won 92 of Texas' 98 delegates. The eventual nominee and president, Carter was later quoted as saying he had expected a much stronger showing by Bentsen but that Bentsen's failure to campaign nationally had ended his hopes.
Bentsen was known as a moderate Democrat. His support for abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and civil rights was balanced by his endorsement of public school prayer, capital punishment, tax cuts, and deregulation of industry. He generally supported business interests in the arena of economic policy and swiftly rose to become a power to be reckoned with on the Senate Finance Committee.
Bentsen's reputation as a moderate Democrat served to alienate him not only from supporters of Ralph Yarborough, but from prominent national liberals, as well. Indeed, during the 1970 Senate race, the Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith endorsed George Bush, arguing that if Bentsen were elected to the Senate, he would invariably become the face of a new, more conservative Texas Democratic Party, and that the long-term interests of Texas liberalism demanded Bentsen's defeat.
In 1988 Governor Michael Dukakis (Massachusetts) chose Bentsen to be his running mate in that year's presidential election, beating out Ohio Senator John Glenn who was considered the early favorite. Bentsen was selected in large part to secure the state of Texas and its electoral vote for the Democrats. Because of Bentsen's status of something of an elder statesman who was more experienced in elected politics, many believed Dukakis' selection of Bentsen as his running mate was a mistake in that Bentsen, number two on the ticket, appeared more "presidential" than did Dukakis. One elector in West Virginia even cast a ballot for him rather than Dukakis in voting, giving him one electoral vote for President.
He was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in American campaign history during his televised debate with Republican vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle. Quayle noted that he had as much political experience as John F. Kennedy when Kennedy ran for office. Bentsen fired back with the retort "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Quayle responded to the statement by saying "That was really uncalled for, Senator." Then Bentsen fired back again by saying "You're the one who was making the comparison, Senator."
The Dukakis-Bentsen ticket lost the election. Bentsen was unable to swing his home state, with 43 percent of the Texas vote going for the Dukakis ticket while Bush and Quayle took 56 percent.
His stature enhanced, Bentsen considered running for president in 1992, but he, along with many other Democrats, backed out because of Bush's apparent popularity following the successful Gulf War. A controversy arose during that time when Bentsen canceled his membership in, but then rejoined, a whites-only country club.
He resigned from the Senate in January 1993 to serve as the 69th Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton from 1993 to 1994. While Secretary, Bentsen successfully urged Clinton to pursue relatively pro-business and deficit-reducing economic policies. Clinton's selection of Bentsen for his Cabinet was criticized by some Democrats, when a Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison, won the special election in June 1993, for the year and a half left in Bentsen's term. As Secretary of the Treasury, Bentsen helped to shepherd Clinton's first budget through Congress. President Clinton awarded Bentsen the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.
After resignation of Les Aspin in early 1994, Bentsen was seriously considered to be moved from position of Secretary of the Treasury to Secretary of Defense. These plans, however, did not materialize and William Perry, then Defense Deputy Secretary, was chosen to replace Aspin instead.
Bentsen died on May 23, 2006, at his home in Houston at the age of 85. He was survived by his wife, the former Beryl Ann Longino, three children, and several grandchildren. His funeral was held on May 30 at the First Presbyterian Church of Houston. Former president Bill Clinton, who was a close friend of Bentsen's, delivered a eulogy.
Bentsen's family continues to be active in politics. His nephew, Ken Bentsen, Jr., was a U.S. Representative (D) from 1995 to 2003 in Texas's 25th District, and a U.S. Senate candidate in 2002. His grandson, Lloyd Bentsen IV, served on John Kerry's advance staff during Kerry's 2004 campaign for the presidency of the United States.
He is celebrated for inventing the term astroturfing.
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