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Washington • Bob Bennett had one task that always occupied a top priority in the calendar that helped make him a millionaire: Make a difference.
"One of Bob's goals has always been to make a difference he wrote that in his Franklin Day Planner," recalled his wife, Joyce, after his first election to the Senate in 1992.
Bennett, a senator's son who later assumed his father's seat, didn't tiptoe around the controversial or ever regret the tough decisions as he strove to craft an image as a statesman even as Washington devolved around him into shrill partisan squabbling. It was an approach that ultimately led to his defeat, but not before, during three productive terms, he left his lasting mark in many areas. On the tangible, bring-the-bacon-home-to-Utah front, there was federal funding for a controversial, but now-popular light-rail system; big-dollar highway construction that included rebuilding I-15 through Salt Lake County; money for Olympic venues and community projects. On the intangible side was his policy savvy, as he became increasingly relied upon by government leaders as a wise sage.
Bennett died Wednesday after fighting for months against pancreatic cancer and suffering a recent stroke. He was 82.
The former Utah Republican senator's 6-foot-6 lanky frame inevitably led to comparisons with Washington Irving's character Ichabod Crane. But in recent years he took on a different persona: a symbol of the old-style politician who practiced the art of compromise being overwhelmed by the rising power of the tea party. In 2010, he met his electoral demise at the hands of Mike Lee, becoming the first in a string of incumbents knocked off by the anti-establishment movement that changed the dynamics of Washington.
Bennett's fall from the Senate that he revered as an institution and reveled being a member of was due in no small part to the conservative-but-willing-to-cut-a-deal approach he embraced, including in 2008 backing the first bank bailouts in a frantic effort to salvage an economy teetering on the brink.
"I guess I'd like to be known as someone who tried to solve problems," Bennett, in his deep baritone, once said of the legacy he wanted to leave.
Friends, associates and co-workers say Bennett realized this goal during his 18 years in the Senate and his work before and after his Capitol tenure.
"So often politics is filled with the young firebrand who is certain that he or she knows the better way than history, but it's important to have steady hands who know history, steady minds that know how to interpret it and not be driven to and fro by every wind of ideology and political debate," says former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. "Bob Bennett was a ballast in politics.... It wasn't necessarily a goal, it was him."
Bennett's philosophy and tone and his "conciliatory influence" brought a much-needed break from partisan warring, Leavitt adds, and Bennett offered "a dignified and thoughtful public-policy perspective."
Starting early • A native Utahn, Bennett was also a longtime Washington hand. He interned with the Senate as a young man and, after earning a degree in political science at the University of Utah, returned to D.C. as press secretary to then-Rep. Sherman Lloyd. Later, he served briefly as a top aide to his father, Sen. Wallace F. Bennett, who served from 1951-1977.
After heading the lobbying shop for J.C. Penney Co., the younger Bennett joined the Nixon administration as congressional liaison for the Transportation Department.
He left government officially to purchase the Robert R. Mullen Co., a public-relations firm and CIA cover organization that employed former agency officer and soon-to-be arrested Watergate burglar Howard Hunt. A source for The Washington Post's Bob Woodward (and often included on the list of Deep Throat suspects), Bennett was sucked into a whirlwind of grand jury and congressional investigations that demanded all of his attention and alienated his firm's clients.
The company didn't survive, but Bennett did, thanks primarily to one of his most famous, albeit mysterious clients, reclusive business tycoon Howard Hughes. The Utahn moved to California in 1974 and managed public relations for Hughes' Summa Corp. When Hughes died, Bennett left the organization he said the alternative was moving to Las Vegas to work in the gambling business and after some other management gigs, helped start the Franklin company that made him his fortune.
In 1992, Bennett jumped into his first run for office a crowded Senate election that, before it was done, set a record that stood for many years as the most expensive in Utah politics. While he put $2 million of his own money into the effort, he nevertheless was outspent 3-to-1 by the self-funded campaign of former Geneva Steel chief Joe Cannon.
After narrowly defeating Cannon in the hard-fought GOP primary, Bennett went on to battle widely known Democratic Rep. Wayne Owens in the general election, beating him by a convincing margin to claim the seat his father held for a quarter century. And friends say his dad was constantly on his mind as he carved his path in the world's most exclusive club.
Like dad • A short time into his first term, Bennett was able to move out of the dark Dirksen Senate Office Building basement to the second floor, coincidentally the same suite his father had held for years. As is typical, building workers were stripping the walls and making way for the new occupant.
"As they were redoing the offices, we were sitting there and they took down an old clock," recalls Bennett's longtime senior aide, Mary Jane Collipriest. "Senator Bennett looked up there and said, 'That's Bennett green.'"
Turns out, Wallace Bennett hadn't liked the staid-Senate color offerings for his office and had brought in his own cans of paint from the Bennett Paint and Glass Company, a family business where Bob Bennett once worked. Bennett didn't paint his office green.
Leavitt, who ran for governor at the same time Bob Bennett sought the Senate, said Bennett resembled his father, Wallace, so much, in appearance and style, "it was almost startling." And he took a high-road approach to public life.
"He felt public service was a noble undertaking that it was an obligation he felt based on both citizenship and his desire to make a contribution," Leavitt says.
He was reared in the political environment, but made clear governance was more important than partisanship. "I don't think there was a lot of political expediency in Bob Bennett's nature," Leavitt adds.
That helped, friends say, when it came to working with both Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation or affect decisions on Capitol Hill. Bennett wasn't one to pound his fist on the podium or jump on the partisan bandwagon.
"He was a senator's senator," Tom Korologos, a one-time aide to Wallace Bennett and former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, says of Bob Bennett. "Everybody liked him."
That included former political rivals.
After the pricey 1992 primary race, he reached out to Cannon "His very words were, 'Why don't we break bread together," recalled Cannon and later Bennett helped recruit Cannon and backed his bid for Utah Republican chairman. "He can be counted on, he can be trusted," Cannon said years later. Bennett also stayed in touch with Scott Leckman, his 1998 Democratic opponent, who once said Bennett was the opposite of Sen. Orrin Hatch, doing his best work with no TV cameras around. "He likes to maneuver behind the scenes."
Bennett's approach to keeping federal funds flowing to Utah means that his legacy can be seen daily across the state. The massive buildup to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and the influx of federal dollars, came, in no small part, because of Bennett's efforts.
This was before budget earmarks had earned a bad rap in Washington, and Bennett was always proud to tout the money and projects he'd brought home to Utah. While some politicians ducked questions about slipping home-state goodies into bills, Bennett issued news releases about them.
The Sandy Fire Department got a new exhaust system, he'd announce. The Orem City Public Library nabbed new self-check out equipment. The congested Bluff Street interchange with Interstate 15 in St. George was rebuilt. He was proud of these projects and the federal help he was able to land for them.
Bennett's perch on the Appropriations Committee was the ideal spot for him. But getting what he saw as Utah's share of the largesse came back to bite him with conservative Republican delegates. Even then, he had no regrets.
"I do not apologize for any of those activities because I think in every case, there's been a significant benefit, not just to Utah, but to the federal treasury," Bennett said, arguing that in a cost-benefit analysis, those investments were sound ones.
Some of Bennett's other accomplishments flew under the political radar of constituents but were much lauded by Washington colleagues.
Forgotten deeds • It was 1994 and the Mexican peso was flailing. An economic crisis was hitting America's southern neighbor and it could have widespread implications on U.S. businesses and cause a spike in undocumented immigration.
Bennett, assigned by then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to work with the Clinton administration on the issue, pitched a solution to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin for a massive bailout to stem the inflation. Rubin initially balked.
"Rubin called him back later and said, 'It took us three weeks to figure out you were right,'" says Collipriest, who served as Bennett's communications director and later chief of staff.
In the lead-up to the turn of the last century, worries began percolating about a possible worldwide computer meltdown because older systems had been programmed with only two digits for the year. In what came to be known as Y2K, alarms were raised as some experts feared that when 1999 gave way to 2000, banks, airlines and government computers could crash.
Bennett was named chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem and worked with businesses and government agencies to try to fix the concern before the clocks turned. In the end, there were no major blips, and Bennett earned some criticism for sounding the alarm so loudly. He believed, though, that all the feared problems didn't materialize because of the work done to prevent them.
Bennett played a key role in another crisis, though this one ultimately cost him his career.
TARP • In 2008, Bennett, then a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee, was in a key spot as the U.S. economy began a meltdown. America and the world were on the brink of catastrophe as too-big-to-fail business started doing just that. Bennett joined the tense negotiations to find a fix. Emerging from one huddle, Bennett strode up to awaiting reporters and cameras.
"I now expect we will, indeed, have a plan that can pass the House, pass the Senate, be signed by the president and bring a sense of certainty to this crisis that is still roiling the markets," Bennett declared.
The deal wasn't actually struck, but eventually it would be, and it became as controversial as it was expensive: the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a $700 billion bailout package meant to hold off an economic crash.
It wasn't Bennett's idea, but he instantly became associated with what would become known as TARP, a profanity in conservative circles. The senator said he never disavowed that vote, likening it to his father's courage in supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 even in the face of an election backlash.
"My father never regretted his civil rights vote," Bob Bennett said in his farewell Senate remarks. "I don't regret my TARP vote because it was the right thing to do."
In 2010, Bennett lost his re-election bid at the Republican State Convention as detractors chanted "TARP, TARP, TARP" in the cavernous hall. While staffers and campaign workers shed tears nearby, Bennett simply dabbed at his running nose as he accepted the news. He declined pressure to mount a write-in campaign and would, for the most part, refuse to criticize his successor, Sen. Mike Lee.
Studies later showed that TARP was instrumental in preventing an all-out economic collapse, and, under some measurements, the program actually netted the federal government billions in profit. Bennett's colleagues saw his actions as a valiant.
The Utahn knew the business world from the inside, having run several companies, including a seven-year stint as the CEO of Franklin Quest, which revolutionized the personal day planner industry.
"He has managed to stay true to the fiscal principles that he gained as a businessman and CEO, while understanding the need for compromise when it was required of him for the sake of his state and the rest of America," then-Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said from the Senate floor in 2010.
Hatch, who served with Bennett his entire time in office, says his Utah colleague was humble, confident and organized, three traits that helped him succeed in the Senate.
"Bob would do what he thought was right and he did. He was right," Hatch says. "He could work with both sides. He had tremendous capacity to understand what was going on, especially in the field of finance."
Bennett didn't like the minutia of legal arguments, Hatch says, but he did like to be the architect of innovative ideas. "He was proud to say he wasn't burdened with a law degree," Hatch, an attorney, said.
Moving on • In his years in the Senate, Bennett secured his place in the inner circle of power. He was a confidante and traveling companion to Dole when he stepped down as majority leader to run for president in 1996 and later became close to Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott. In his final years he was a trusted adviser of Senate Minority Leader, now Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who often sought out the Utahn for counsel.
"I simply would not be where I am today without the benefit of Bob's wisdom and friendship, and I am deeply grateful for it," McConnell once said.
As Bennett departed the Senate in January 2011, he didn't plan to retire. Among other responsibilities he took on, he joined the law firm Arent Fox, launched the Bennett Group, a consulting firm in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C., served as a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and taught at the University of Utah and the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
At a lunch not too long ago in Washington with Collipriest, Bennett rattled off all the things he was involved in. Given Bennett's penchant for never taking an elevator he preferred using the five flights of stairs to his Senate office it wasn't a surprise.
"I said, 'Senator, you exhaust me,' " Collipriest says. "It was just typical Bennett; he didn't look back and forged ahead."
"R Bennett" • On his second-to-last day in office, Bennett strolled into the Senate cloakroom and asked an aide for help.
"I said, 'Do you have a blunt instrument with which I can deface government property?' " Bennett recalled as he left office. "And they said, 'Yes, as a matter of fact, we do.' "
He was carrying on a century-old tradition, taking what looked like an ice pick and carving his name into the drawer of the desk that had been his for 18 years, and years before that, his father's.
Below the first "Bennett" inscription, is the "R Bennett" he added that day.
It was only one of the marks he left.