Lloyd Bentsen, a courtly Texan who represented the state in Congress for 28 years and served as President Clinton's first treasury secretary, died Tuesday, his family said. He was 85.
Bentsen, who died at his Houston home, capped off a long political career as the Democratic 1988 vice presidential nominee, famously telling rival Dan Quayle during a televised debate: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
Bentsen's distinguished political career took him from the humble beginnings of a county office in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1940s to six years in the U.S. House, 22 in the U.S. Senate and two in the Clinton Cabinet, where he was instrumental in directing the administration's economic policy.
A shrewd legislative operator, the silver-haired politician maneuvered with ease in Democratic and Republican circles alike on Capitol Hill, crafting deals behind the scenes in a dispassionate, reserved fashion.
Chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee for six years, Bentsen was a solidly pro-business Democrat who compiled a record as a staunch advocate of international trade and protector of the oil and gas industry.
Former U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen described his uncle's life as incredible.
"He not only achieved a lot but took advantage to make his state, his nation and the world better," Bentsen said in a December 2003 interview.
The scion of a wealthy Rio Grande Valley family, Bentsen first distinguished himself in World War II, where he flew 50 bomber missions over Europe. Returning home as a decorated veteran, the 25-year-old was elected Hidalgo County judge in 1946. Two years later, he moved to the House.
In his first House term, Bentsen was one of a handful of Southern congressmen voting against the poll tax, which was used to keep blacks from voting.
Despite the prediction of one of his mentors, legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, that he, too, could one day become speaker, Bentsen decided not to seek re-election in 1954. Instead, he opted to return to private life in Houston and build his own fortune, using several million dollars in seed money from his family.
Flush with corporate success, the millionaire felt the call of politics anew and decided in 1970 to challenge liberal Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough. After winning a bitter primary, Bentsen went on to defeat his Republican rival, Congressman George Bush, for the first of four Senate terms.
The moderate-to-conservative Democrat, who preferred to work away from the limelight, quickly built a reputation as a bipartisan coalition builder.
National ambitions led him to seek the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, a race he quickly abandoned after gaining little support. Returning his attention to the Senate, Bentsen cemented his expertise in tax, trade and economic issues as well as foreign affairs.
By 1988, Bentsen was one of the Senate's most respected voices. That year, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis tapped the elder statesman as his running mate. The Dukakis-Bentsen ticket went down hard, losing 40 states — including Texas — to the Bush-Quayle team.
Texas Governor Rick Perry has ordred flags at all state buildings be lowered to half-staff for five days to honor Bentsen.