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Political Wrap: Jefferson Probe, Bentsen Legacy

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Political Wrap: Jefferson Probe, Bentsen Legacy

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Political Wrap: Jefferson Probe, Bentsen Legacy

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Today, it's our regular Wednesday segment. NPR's Political Junkie, Ken Rudin, joins us. Hi, Ken.

KEN RUDIN reporting:

Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: In a few minutes, we'll talk about the personal and political legacy of Lloyd Bentsen. Texas's former Lt. Governor, Ben Barnes, joins us here in studio 3A. But first, Louisiana is ground zero for political surprises this week. The FBI says Democratic Congressman Bill Jefferson had $90,000 in cash stashed in his freezer. Plus, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin hangs on to win.

If you have questions for Ken Rudin about the week in politics, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. E-mail us at talk@npr.org.

But, Ken, first let's start with the William Jefferson situation. The FBI says he took bribes and put the money in his freezer. They say they have him on tape accepting this kind of money. Jefferson, a Democrat, says he did nothing wrong.

But today, both Republicans and Democrats are outraged about a raid on his office.

RUDIN: Well, what's I think most interesting about this is that it seems that the Republicans are the ones that are really, really outraged about this. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert called President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and said this is beyond the pale; this is a violation of the separation of powers; it's unconstitutional. And the Republicans seem to be really, really exorcised about this.

The Democrats seem to be almost, like, playing it down. Nancy Pelosi doesn't really like to even mention the name bill Jefferson and, as it turns out, she sent a note to Jefferson saying he should step down from his position as a member of the Committee on Ways and Means. He has refused.

Now, it's interesting to note - or it's important to point out, that Bill Jefferson has not been charged with any crime. There's been no charges filed against him, and yet the Democrats want him to disappear as soon as possible.

MARTIN: How is this playing in Jefferson's district in New Orleans?

RUDIN: Well, as far as Republicans and Democrats it doesn't, because it's a solidly Democratic district. It's a majority African-American district outside of New Orleans. And basically, they're waiting and seeing.

I think the people I've spoken to, nobody feels that Jefferson will stand for reelection in November, and there are people registered, you know, already preparing to make the race. But, again, nothing's going to happen before an indictment, but they think an indictment is coming soon.

MARTIN: I'd just like to spend just a couple of seconds more on the politics of this. The New York Times today editorialized about the raid, and they basically said that, you know, look, you know, get over yourselves. If people think that there was some sort of wrongdoing going on there, then there has to be some way for authorities to investigate it. And, you know, the Republicans really are apoplectic about it. The Speaker said that he spoke to President Bush personally about this issue.

You know, why are the Republicans so furious about this?

RUDIN: Well, it's a good question. I mean, the FBI has raided City Halls in the past. The FBI has done investigation into the Mayor of Philadelphia, and there was investigations going in there, going into the Mayor's office in City Hall. So I don't know what the separation of powers argument has to do, unless the Republicans just don't want this precedent.

Now, there are a lot of rumors that Republicans have things to hide. And there's a lot of stuff on the blogosphere about that. But the Republicans seem unusually exorcised about this.

MARTIN: Let's stay in Louisiana. The mayor there managed to hang on in the election last weekend. Voters, by a very small margin, decided to give Ray Nagin another chance. Admit it - were you surprised?

RUDIN: No, I wasn't surprised. I was stunned. Given the fact that everything was aligned against him, the polls were against him, the fact that he went from a two - New Orleans went from a two-thirds African-American city to a 50-50 city, Nagin's reviews coming out of the handling of Katrina were never good, and he was also running against a very big name in Louisiana politics, Mitch Landrieu, the state's Lt. Governor, the brother of Senator Mary Landrieu.

Landrieu had the money, he had the endorsements, he had, you know, again, a history of running politics in that state, the family name, and yet Nagin held on.

Nagin - what happened was, maybe he was a disaster following Katrina, but he was a very, very good campaigner after the April 22nd initial primary, whereas Landrieu basically gave out platitudes and was kind of stiff. And Nagin spoke the peoples' language, and he won.

MARTIN: Did he pick up a greater share of the white vote than he did in the first round?

RUDIN: Absolutely. In the April 22nd vote, Nagin only got eight-percent of the white vote. He got 20 percent in the runoff. And a lot of these whites were conservative whites, who just never trusted Mitch Landrieu and the Landrieu family to begin with. They saw him as part of the liberal - you know, the no-good doers in Louisiana, and they stuck with Ray Nagin.

MARTIN: Let's take a quick call from Las Vegas and Randy(ph).

RANDY (Caller): Yeah, just back to the part about all of the - this gentleman who had the money in his freezer?

RUDIN: The cold cash, right?

RANDY: Right. Right. And I'm wondering, you know, I've heard on your show and several others that these politicians are outraged that the FBI would come into their offices. I guess they - you know, why hasn't anyone in the media asked them, well, why is your office so much more sacrosanct than my office or your office? Because, I mean, if the FBI has evidence of me taking a bribe and I'm in a position where I shouldn't be doing that, they are going to come into my office.

I mean, these representatives work for us. They are not the elite. They are not a royalty or anything. They - you know, what's with this?

MARTIN: Okay, Randy, thanks for your call.

RANDY: Sure.

RUDIN: That's a fair question. It's a good question, and it has not been asked. The Republicans just keep mouthing off over and over again about the Constitutional separation of powers. But, again, if there's wrongdoing, there's alleged wrongdoing - look, the FBI has been very aggressive at trying to root out corruption. And if the Republicans are sensitive to the culture of corruption, as a lot of them say they are, why not let the FBI and the government do its job?

MARTIN: Moving on, Ken, as we mentioned earlier in the program, we learned yesterday that former Senator Lloyd Bentsen has died. Bentsen was a four-term Senator from Texas. He served as President Clinton's first Secretary of the Treasury. He was also the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1988.

(Soundbite of Lloyd Bentsen campaign speech)

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): From Massachusetts and the Texas axis was good for the country and good for the Democratic Party in 1960, and it's going to be a real winner in November of '88.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Now, most people remember Lloyd Bentsen for his famous rhetoric to Dan Quayle during a debate in the 1988 campaign, when he told Dan Quayle that he was no Jack Kennedy. Let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of 1988 vice presidential nominee debate)

Sen. BENTSEN: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator DAN QUAYLE (Republican, Indiana): That was really uncalled for, Senator.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator BENTSEN: You're the one that was making the comparison, Senator. And I'm one who knew him well. And, frankly, I think you're so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country, that I did not think the comparison was well taken.

MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Now, in the last day or so, I'm sure many people have heard that line from Lloyd Bentsen. But there was certainly much more to his career in public service than that line. And joining us to talk about that is Ben Barnes. He's a former Lt. Governor of Texas, author of, Barn Burning, Barn Building: Tales of a Political Life from LBJ to George W. Bush, and Beyond.

He worked with Lloyd Bentsen, knew the man and his work. Ben Barnes joins us now in studio 3A. Thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. BEN BARNES (Author): Thanks for allowing me to be on your program today.

MARTIN: There are such different images of Lloyd Bentsen. I mean, on the one hand, he kind of really came up in politics at a tough time in Texas, when politics really was not beanbag. And yet, in Washington, he's just seen as such an elegant man, you know, beautifully tailored, always with a kind of wonderful line.

So you knew him. What was the real Lloyd Bentsen? Was it the guy with the beautiful cufflinks, or was it the guy who could mix it up with the best of them?

Mr. BARNES: Well, he was a little combination of the both of them. I was asked earlier today about - to come up with a synonym to describe Lloyd Bentsen, and I used the word distinguished; because, as you said, he was finely fit and finely tailored and carried himself with a lot of grace and charm. And he always looked very distinguished. I've said Lloyd Bentsen could be in a temperature of 120 degrees and keep his coat on, and not break out in perspiration. He was always there looking like he'd just come out of a dressing room.

But Lloyd grew up in south Texas. He was a distinguished veteran of World War II. He served as a very young man in the United States Congress from south Texas. He learned a lot about life in south Texas, and how to survive. He then went on to a very distinguished business career. He was an outstanding business leader in Houston.

Then, in 1970, there came an opportunity for Lloyd to go to the United States Senate. It was a tough time in Texas politics, and there was another person who had their eye on that seat and thought that perhaps he was going to get that seat, and that was George Bush; later President Bush One. Lloyd Bentsen ran and defeated Senator Yarbrough in the primary, and then went on to defeat President Bush rather handily in that race.

And he put together a combination of Hispanic, black, small businessmen, and really business leaders. A lot of people have forgotten that in Texas in 1970, we already had one Republican United States Senator, Senator John Tower. And looking at the polls and talking to Bentsen about that race - the (unintelligible) polls of what had been run of what I should do - it showed very clearly that if Bentsen or someone else did not run against Senator Yarborough, his reelect numbers were only 38 percent, then George Bush would have been Senator. And I'm sure he would have been a fine Senator, but at that time, and as I still feel today, it's good for states to have a Democrat and Republican representing them in the United States Senate.

And so Bentsen went on to become a very, very important person. He was - and I think one of the most important things people need to realize today, and I wish there were more Lloyd Bentsens there, boy, Lloyd Bentsen could work both sides of the aisle. He was truly a bi-partisan politician. He didn't have time for partisanship. He was involved in writing tax policy and passing legislation that was good for all Republicans and all Democrats. He didn't use party labels, he used the goodwill and the vision of what was right for America.

MARTIN: But I - the - I'm hearing you say, Mr. Barnes, that he - that politics was not his first choice. That he ran, in part, because the party needed a candidate. Is that true?

Mr. BARNES: That's true. He loved politics, but he also loved business. And he probably had more difficult time than most senators listening to committee hearings that went on for hours and hours. Lloyd Bentsen wanted things to happen really quickly.

MARTIN: Ken Rudin, what - how do you think we'll remember Lloyd Bentsen?

RUDIN: Well, as Ben Barnes just said, of course, we remember the great put-down of Dan Quayle in 1988; and, of course, the P.S. to all that is that the Bush-Quayle ticket won that election, winning 40 out of 50 states. He also defeated George Bush in 1970.

But when I think of - and what I would love to talk to Ben Barnes about, is that Ben Barnes comes from the wing of the Democratic Party that used to control the state; that used to control Texas: John Connally, Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, Ben Barnes, Lloyd Bentsen. That is no longer the case in Texas. What has happened to the Democratic Party in Texas and what has happened to the State of Texas?

MARTIN: Very briefly, Mr. Barnes, if you would.

Mr. BARNES: Okay, very briefly. Sum and substance, Lyndon Johnson said many times, you can't let it become socially unacceptable to be a Democrat. And that's happened in Texas. We didn't have a farm system.

Texas has always been a very conservative state, and the Republicans provided the conservative leadership.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. Ben Barnes, a former Lt. Gov. of Texas, a real pro. Author of, Barn Burning, Barn Building: Tales of a Political Life from LBJ to George W. Bush and Beyond. He joined us in studio 3A.

And, as always, Ken Rudin, NPR's Political Editor. And you can read Ken's take on Ray Nagin's resurgence in New Orleans in Political Junkie at npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, in Washington.

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