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.
It turns out he was also the target of a series of death threats and extortion plots throughout his public career.
Bentsen’s FBI file documents more than a dozen threats from the 1970s to 1991, including one in 1988 simultaneously against Bentsen, when he held the second spot on the Democratic ticket, and Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, his Republican vice presidential rival.
Among the threats was also a plot to kidnap Bentsen’s father in 1978 and apparently hold him for ransom.
Others included threats from two different Fort Worth, Texas, letter writers, as well as an inmate in a Gatesville, Texas, 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 twin threats against Bentsen and Quayle in September 1988 came via identical anonymous letters sent to their respective Senate offices in Washington, postmarked from Illinois.
They were decorated with an abstract drawing and in block letters said: “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, 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 nominee Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts at the time.
Asked about the incident, Dukakis replied by email: “I know nothing about any such threat.”
Quayle was on the GOP ticket below presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, who was then the vice president. They won the election.
Quayle did not respond to a request for comment.
Bill Kristol, who served as his vice presidential chief of staff, said that he was unaware of threats during the campaign, although he knew about ones made against Quayle after he was elected.
“There were always threats; some, or most of them, not serious. Maybe one or two,” said Kristol, now editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative political magazine.
Under U.S. law, threatening the president or government officials is a felony, with penalties that could range from five to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
The Secret Service, which is responsible for protecting presidential and vice presidential candidates, handled the investigation into the threats against Bentsen and Quayle, with assistance from the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police. They eventually located 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 ran for the vice presidency and the Senate simultaneously). “He just sort of brushed it off.”
Now global chairman of Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm, Martin said that security during travel 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 actually were, although each was investigated.
Spokesman for both the FBI and the Secret Service said that they take all threat cases against public officials seriously.
Former Secret Service agent Chris Falkenberg, president of Insite Security Inc., a New York-based security firm, said that the number of threats against the late senator 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 U.S. treasury secretary from 1993 to 1994 during President Bill Clinton’s first term.