WASHINGTON -- Lloyd Bentsen was a patrician yet popular politician, tall and dignified, a U.S. senator from Texas for 22 years, a presidential candidate in the 1970s and the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee.He was also the target of a series of death threats and extortion plots.Bentsen's FBI file documents more than a dozen threats from the 1970s to 1991, including one in 1988 against both Bentsen, when he held the second spot on the Democratic presidential ticket, and Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, his Republican vice presidential rival.The threats also included a plot to kidnap Bentsen's father in 1978 and apparently hold him for ransom.Others were threats from several Fort Worth letter writers and an inmate in a Gatesville prison.Bentsen died in 2006 at age 85. McClatchy was able to obtain his FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act because he is deceased.The threats against Bentsen and Quayle in September 1988 were conveyed in identical anonymous letters sent to their respective Senate offices in Washington, postmarked in Illinois.They were decorated with an abstract drawing and said in block letters, "Prediction: 'Assassination' in the news soon!""I do remember during the campaign with Bentsen hearing of the threat and the Secret Service being totally on top of it," said Joe O'Neill, a Washington public relations executive who was chief of staff of Bentsen's vice presidential campaign. "He never gave it a passing thought. It was never a matter of concern to him. The Secret Service was incredibly vigilant."Bentsen was the running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988. Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts.Asked about the incident, Dukakis replied by e-mail: "I know nothing about any such threat."Quayle was on the GOP ticket below presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, who was vice president. They won the election.Quayle did not respond to a request for reaction.Bill Kristol, his vice presidential chief of staff, said he was unaware of threats during the campaign, although he knew about some made against Quayle after he was elected."There were always threats, some, or most of them, not serious. Maybe one or two," said Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, a conservative political magazine.Threatening the president and government officials is a federal felony, with penalties that could range from five to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines."A gentleman's gentleman"The FBI has investigated at least 236 death threats against lawmakers over the past decade, according to Politico.com. Its research shows that the number of serious death threats has dropped during that time.Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Republican from North Texas, said he received death threats when he was in Congress. But he remembered Bentsen fondly as "a gentleman's gentleman" and said he was surprised to learn that he received them too.The Secret Service is responsible for protecting presidential and vice presidential candidates. It handled the investigation of the threats against Bentsen and Quayle, with assistance from the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police. They eventually found the author in a Chicago suburb after he sent other letters with a return address.In a redacted FBI memo in April 1989, based on an interview with the letter writer -- his name and other identifying information had been removed -- the Secret Service characterized him as "not a threat" and closed the investigation."It was not uncommon, particularly during campaign years," said Jack Martin, a top aide to Bentsen in the 1970s and '80s and chief of staff for his 1988 Senate re-election campaign. "He just sort of brushed it off."Now global chairman of Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm, Martin said security while traveling with Bentsen was low-key."It was an aide -- usually me -- and a rental car," Martin said. "He detested entourages. We never had weapons or anything."Because law enforcement authorities would not talk specifically about the threats, it is unclear how serious any of them were, although each was investigated.Spokesmen for the FBI and the Secret Service said they take all threats against public officials seriously.Former Secret Service agent Chris Falkenberg, president of Insite Security of New York, said the number of threats against Bentsen was not unusual."All Secret Service protectees receive threats on a regular basis," said Falkenberg, who was briefly assigned to Bentsen later in the Texan's career. "Most people who send threatening correspondence are mentally ill."Bentsen was Treasury secretary from 1993 to 1994 during former President Bill Clinton's first term.Fort Worth threatsResidents of Fort Worth were responsible for threats on several occasions. The FBI interviewed and warned one resident who threatened the senator in 1989.Another included a clipping of a Star-Telegram article in April that year about satanic cults of drug smugglers killing people on the border. He warned Bentsen to "seal the border ... or we, the people, will burn down the Capitol with you in it!"A Fort Worth man upset about gun control who included his return address wrote to Bentsen, "You are the biggest traitor we have and should be killed."According to an FBI memo, "he stated has written several other letters to other elected officials in hope to arouse their interest concerning the gun control issue. ... He was wondering why the FBI was coming to his house."The agents gave him a warning but did not pursue the case.Maria Recio is the Star-Telegram's Washington bureau chief. 202-383-6103.
Lloyd Millard Bentsen Jr. was born Feb. 11, 1921, in Mission. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Texas, then earned his law degree there in 1942 at age 21. He volunteered for the Army. During World War II he flew 50 bomber missions over Europe and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. After returning home, Bentsen practiced law and entered politics. He served three terms in the U.S. House, then left to enter the insurance business. Once Bentsen made his fortune, he returned to politics.
1946: Elected Hidalgo County judge.
1948-1955: Served in the House.
1971-1993: Served in the Senate.
1976: Unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.
1988: Running mate of unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
1993-1994: Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton.
1994: Retired from politics to practice law and travel.
1999: Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by Clinton.
Bentsen's big moment
In the Oct. 5, 1988, vice presidential debate, Republican candidate Dan Quayle, a senator battling criticism that he was too inexperienced to be George H.W. Bush's running mate, said, "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." Bentsen's retort in the televised event caused a sensation: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy," he said. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
As a senator from Texas, Bentsen was chairman of the Finance Committee and helped pass bills establishing individual retirement accounts and protecting workers' pensions. As Clinton's first Treasury secretary, Bentsen helped push through the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and a controversial deficit-reduction package.
Source: Star-Telegram archives