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Utah's Bob Bennett Was a Senator From Another Era

Utah's Bob Bennett Was a Senator From Another Era

By    |   Saturday, 07 May 2016 08:18 PM

Nearly every obituary about former Utah Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett following his death May 4 at age 82 remembered how the three-term lawmaker was "in 2010 the first high-profile political casualty of an anti-Washington fervor surging through his party," as The Washington Post put it.

That’s not the full story. With a lifetime rating of 83.68 percent from the American Conservative Union, Bennett — like all modern Utah Republicans in Congress — generally voted as a solid conservative on cultural and economic issues.

But as the son of a U.S. senator and someone who had been a staffer on Capitol Hill in the 1960s, the Beehive State lawmaker also had warm memories of the days when Democrats and Republicans worked together. Bennett joined forces in 2007 with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden to craft the Healthy Americans Act, which meshed the Democrats’ goal of universal healthcare with the Republican ideas of choice in health insurance and permitting the market to determine its cost.

The measure never got to the Senate for a vote. Three years later, on a party-line vote, Congress enacted the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Bennett fought it vigorously, warning its requirements would lead to "devastation" of the states.

Bennett’s earlier attempt to collaborate with Wyden on healthcare was never forgiven by the growing "tea party" movement in Utah. Neither was the senator's vote in '08 for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) that bailed out Wall Street banks with $475 billion. He also irked many on the right by running for re-election in '04 and thus breaking his "two terms I’m out" pledge.

"I'm not worried," Bennett told me regarding his plans to seek a fourth term, recalling how his father, Sen. Wallace Bennett (1950-74), was "always challenged for nomination by someone accusing him he wasn't conservative enough. And Dad always won."
But times had changed. With a state convention of party activists determining who would make the primary ballot, Bennett was lustily booed as "Bailout Bob!" and came in third in a field of eight. With Bennett eliminated from contention, his seat was won by fellow Republican Mike Lee, a swashbuckling conservative with a fervent following among tea partiers.

A master raconteur, Bennett could hold a listener spellbound by bringing to life the history he had lived on Capitol Hill. He once told me of dining at his parents' home in 1953 with freshman Republican Rep. Doug Stringfellow of Utah, a political star who had been elected on the strength of his exploits as an OSS agent in World War II on an aborted mission to capture scientist Otto Hahn and keep Germany from acquiring the atomic bomb.

When Stringfellow’s heroism was exposed as fiction and he was driven from office in '54, Bennett said, "It was like learning John McCain was never a prisoner of war."

After graduating from the University of Utah in 1957, Bennett went to work in the Senate as his father's top aide. The law passed a decade later that barred lawmakers from hiring relatives was, in his words, "stupid."

"Bill Saltonstall did a good job for his father [Massachusetts GOP Sen. Leverett Saltonstall] and I did a good job for Dad," Bennett told me, "So why should people like us be punished because one person abused the system? [New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell's wife, Yvette, was discovered to be a paid staffer in his office while she lived in Puerto Rico]."

After working in the Nixon Administration, Bennett spent two decades as a successful business executive. But that part of his life was marred for years by repeated speculation he was involved in the Watergate political scandal, and was "Deep Throat," the secretive informant for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

"You can credit that to that paragon of journalistic excellence Mother Jones," he said sarcastically, "Look, my sole connection to Watergate was I sublet my office [at the Robert Mullen public relations firm] at nights to [Watergate burglar] Howard Hunt. I never saw him. And I did work for Howard Hughes for a time."

The reclusive billionaire’s ties to then-Democratic National Chairman Lawrence O’Brien were long thought to be a reason for the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in 1972.

But books and television specials on Watergate for years listed Bennett as a probable "Deep Throat" until Woodward and Bernstein admitted in 2005 that their secret informant was former Assistant FBI Director W. Mark Felt.

Seeking a fourth term in '10, Bennett told me he wasn’t worried about violating his term limit pledge. He noted that "Dad unseated [then-Democratic Sen. Elbert] Thomas in 1950 by stressing the incumbent was 67 and that was too old to vigorously represent in the Senate. When Dad sought re-election in 1968, reporters reminded him he was now 70 himself and had said 67 was too old.

"Dad took out a Bible, turned to 1 Corinthians 13:11 and read: 'When I was a child, I talked like a child. When I became a man I put childish ways behind me.'"

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Nearly every obituary about former Utah Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett following his death May 4 at age 82 remembered how the three-term lawmaker was in 2010 the first high-profile political casualty of an anti-Washington fervor surging through his party, as The...
Bob Bennett, senator, utah
Saturday, 07 May 2016 08:18 PM
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