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Remembering Helen Bentley

Image: Remembering Helen Bentley

Helen Bently (AP)

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Sunday, 07 Aug 2016 09:06 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Upon hearing the news of the death of Helen Bentley, former representative from Maryland, my immediate reaction was: “Helen sure told it the way she saw it.”

That was an understatement. One time Baltimore Sun maritime reporter Bentley (who died at 92 on Saturday) spent nearly two decades on the docks, interviewing tugboats captains and longshoremen.

And she spoke the way they did.

“They don’t know what the hell they are talking about,” was the response of Bentley, at the time the lone member of Congress of Serbian heritage, to American critics of alleged Serb atrocities during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. She vigorously opposed U.S. action in that part of the world in the 1990s.

In 2002, eight years after Republican Bentley left Congress to make an unsuccessful run for governor, she told me she was seriously considering a bid for her former House seat at age 79. I replied that the subject came up at a meeting of conservative movement leaders and one of them said “you really weren’t all that conservative” in Congress.

She shot back with an expletive, of course, adding that to win in her Baltimore-area district, a Republican voting a completely good-as-Goldwater conservative line was out of the question. Bentley also freely voted for appropriations that would benefit the maritime business so crucial to her district’s economy.

Like Donald Trump a generation later, Bentley in the 1980s took the hard-line protectionist position on trade. She voted against trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Accord (NAFTA) in 1993. Furious at the growing trade gap with Japan, Bentley in 1987 organized a group of lawmakers to smash a Japanese-made transistor radio with sledgehammers on the Capitol steps.

One of seven children born to immigrant parents in Nevada, Helen Delich lost her copper-miner father when she was six. She was valedictorian at Pine High School in Ely, Nevada and earned a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Her ambition was always to be a reporter, and she took jobs in newspapers in Idaho, Indiana, and eventually Maryland.

“I am a woman who worked in men’s fields for a long time,” Bentley told the Washington Post years later, “I insisted on working on the city side of the paper and not the women’s pages. I did it all on my own. Women have to be willing to work and produce and not just expect favors because they are women.”

She did. The young Baltimore Sun reporter had the Port of Baltimore beat and was soon batting out a regular column entitled “Around the Waterfront.” Beginning in 1950, Helen Delich (the Bentley was tacked on in 1959 when she married teacher William Bentley) hosted a popular television show in which she broadcast from aboard ship and brought on sailors and stevedores as guests. (In an era when much TV broadcasting went out live, the production crew reportedly grew nervous about Bentley and her friends breaking into a salty exchange on air.)

“She was a no-nonsense gatherer of news,” Jim Martin, president of the SixtyPlus Seniors Association and himself a former reporter, recalled to Newsmax: “And Helen could out cuss any Marine and out-drink any two longshoremen.”

With help from fellow Marylander and Vice President Spiro Agnew, Bentley was named by President Nixon in 1969 to be chairman of the Federal Maritime Administration. This made her the highest-ranked woman in the executive branch of government at the time and sparked talk of a run for office in the future.

Like Newt Gingrich and GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, Bentley took three tries to make it to Congress. In 1980, she challenged Rep. Clarence Long, D-Md., chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, and drew 43 percent of the vote. Two years later, following redistricting that increased GOP strength in the district, Bentley held Long to a margin of 53 to 47 percent.

In 1984, as Long was under fire for opposing Ronald Reagan’s policy of assisting anti-Communist freedom fighters in Central America, the president carried the district by a margin of 2-to-1. “Helen the Determined,” as one Maryland GOP official dubbed her, deposed Long with 51 percent of the vote.

After losing her comeback bid in 2002, Bentley devoted her twilight years to the cause of finding shelters for abandoned and abused dogs. In her last year, she was delighted to see the rise of Trump, whose protectionist stand on trade and no-punches-pulled style mirrored hers.

Ralph Galliano, editor of the SFPPR News & Analysis and someone who knew Bentley for three decades, called her “the Trumpian of her day, a true American who worked hard for working men and women everywhere.”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

 

© Mike Reagan

 
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Upon hearing the news of the death of Helen Bentley, former representative from Maryland, my immediate reaction was: “Helen sure told it the way she saw it.”
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2016-06-07
Sunday, 07 Aug 2016 09:06 AM
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