Washington — Lloyd Bentsen may be the last patrician. In a Senate populated by former cattle ranchers and airline pilots, district attorneys and food-service executives, the Texas Democrat maintains the aristocratic mien that one imagines most senators cultivated in an earlier age.
In other words, observes one corporate lobbyist, ``He's a little on the stiff side.''
That may be an unfair statement, but it is also one based on extensive observation. Corporate lobbyists see a lot of Senator Bentsen - or at least they try to. For much of his 25 years in public service, Bentsen has endeavored to promote the interests of American business. And as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Bentsen is in an unsurpassed position to influence the trade and tax matters that affect industry.
So he has tried to keep his door open to those who might be affected by the policies of his committee. When he became chairman of the committee last year, Bentsen informed Washington lobbyists that they could have breakfast with him for $10,000. His predecessor as chairman, Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, had a similar, though more modestly priced, practice. But Bentsen's breakfast club touched off such a furor that he soon withdrew the idea and joined other Democrats in renewed calls for campaign-finance reform.
All of which did not appear to hurt Bentsen at home, where moderate positions and attentiveness to local concerns have kept him popular with constituents through three terms in the Senate. From his perch on the finance committee Bentsen has done much to protect interests of Texas's beleaguered oil industry. During the 1986 tax reform battle, Bentsen forced then-chairman Packwood and reform author Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey to retain tax loopholes for oil interests. His reelection to the Senate this year has been a foregone conclusion.
Nor, for that matter, has his performance as a senator hurt him in Washington. He earned the gratitude of Democratic colleagues as chairman of the 1984 Senate Democrats' campaign committee, combing his extensive business contacts and leading an operation that gave twice as much to Senate candidates as it has ever given before.
More recently, he won plaudits from fellow Democrats for guiding the trade bill, even though he was known to be less than enthusiastic about many of its provisions. Says one aide to the Senate Democratic leadership: ``He was acting the role of good party soldier.''
Bentsen is very much a ``player'' in a game with few real players. Influential, methodical, respected by colleagues, popular at home, he is the sort of politically secure insider that Michael Dukakis might need to help steer a legislative agenda through the shoals of Capitol Hill.