Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bentsen, RIP

It’s unlikely that Lloyd Bentsen figured that the one devastatingly memorable line he delivered---a riposte that was as casual and spontaneous as your everyday barroom pick-up line---would be the most oft-cited achievement in his obituaries. But Bentsen, over the course of his long careers in business and politics, must have developed an abiding appreciation for the cruel ironies that life can bring. That the line was delivered in the service of Michael Dukakis, a much lesser individual, in every sense, who embodied pretty much everything that was (is) wrong with the Democratic Party, and that it was delivered against Dan Quayle, a much lesser individual, in every sense, who nevertheless attained the high elective office that eluded Bentsen, no doubt only deepened that appreciation.

Bentsen delivered another short, scripted monologue in the early 1950s, during the brief first phase of his political career, when as a South Texas congressman he stood on the Capitol steps and urged the U.S. nuking of North Korea (which, in retrospect, might have saved us some future bother). This episode triggered no contemporaneous reverberations and was lost to history until unearthed for the 1982 documentary Atomic Café. The film clip proved that while Bentsen had learned to moderate his rhetoric in the ensuing 30 years, he had done little to enliven his audience-sedating public persona.

We leaned something we didn’t know or had forgotten about Bentsen by reading this online biography: He had provided one of the voices for the PBS miniseries The American President in 2000. It was that of William Henry Harrison, the 9th president, who famously refused to wear a coat for his inauguration, caught pneumonia and died after only a few weeks in office, barely rating a footnote in U.S. history.

Yes, Bentsen was an ironist.

Cleaning out the garage the other day we ran across the front section of the Sept. 29, 2001 New York Times, which around that time we must have used as a liner in a cardboard storage box. “President Says U.S. Is ‘In Hot Pursuit’ of Terror Group,” read the headline over the play story, which began:
President Bush said today that the United States was “in hot pursuit” of both Osama bin Laden and the Taliban forces harboring him in Afghanistan.

Seems like another place. Definitely another time.

Yet we’d be surprised if the pursuit weren’t cranked to the scorching white-hot level at this very moment. Snaring bin Laden---he’s the decider, apparently, and he decides---would be about the only development capable of goosing that favorability rating above 35 percent.

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