B.A. Bentsen : She's the Elegant, Traditional Senate Wife: Active in Causes but Decidedly in Her Husband's Shadow

Times Staff Writers

Beryl Ann Bentsen does not remember the year precisely--it was in the early '60s--but she does remember the night, a Wednesday, when the small plane she and her husband were traveling in crashed in a field near Kerrville, Tex.

Bentsen, "B.A." to her legion of friends, was the only one injured. Stumbling out of the wreckage in the dark, she cut her knee badly on a portion of the wing that had ripped from the fuselage. She came within inches of walking into a high-power line severed in the crash.

Less than 48 hours later, B.A. Bentsen took her first flying lesson.

"I just decided I needed maybe to be able to set one down," she said in an accent so comforting she sounds like a high-fashion Dale Evans.

The incident is characteristic of what those close to the wife of Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen describe as "inner strength," an ability to withstand difficulty and emerge without bitterness. The death of her 2-year-old granddaughter, Courtney, from leukemia 12 years ago, for example, devastated her, Bentsen said. "You never get over it," she added softly. But those around her marveled at her deportment in the face of tragedy.

"You don't know until you go through a tragedy like this if you really have inner resources," said Alta Leath, a loyal Bentsen friend who is married to fellow Texas Democrat Rep. Marvin Leath. "She has it."

Superficially, Bentsen might be the prototype for a book, "The Perfect Senate Wife." Every Tuesday, she attends meetings of a Senate wives' Red Cross charity group. Immediately afterward, she meets with a Senate wives' Bible study group. Early on, she helped establish the Parents Music Resource Center, a project headed by Tipper Gore, the wife of Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), to help stop what Bentsen calls the "bad influence" the lyrics in many rock songs have on young people.

"There probably aren't more than 15 Senate wives who spend a lot of time on the Hill, and she's one of them," said Gayle Wilson, the wife of Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.).

L.B.J. Held His Tongue

Her dignity and refinement are so apparent that "even Lyndon Johnson didn't cuss in front of her," her husband said.

At 66, Bentsen is tall and slender, with a ready smile that seems warm and genuine. Stopping off for a brief layover at National Airport between appearances in Texas and Richmond, Va., she radiated elegance and self-confidence. Her manicure was perfect; her gold jewelry simple and understated, but very definitely not imitation. She swears she doesn't own "a roller or a bobby pin," and that she only visits her hairdresser once a week, no matter what. If so, one of her major detractions as a campaign presence may be that her hair simply looks too wonderful.

"She's one of the most beautifully groomed people I've ever known," said Scooter Miller, a friend of 40 years and the wife of Texas lobbyist Dale Miller. "B.A. is so beautifully dressed that you never particularly notice what she has on." Meaning, her clothes are "never underdone or overdone," said Peatsy Hollings, the wife of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.).

Almost 50 years ago, the young woman voted the "Most Beautiful Senior" of Lufkin (Tex.) High School decided to market her good looks. Popular and a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority, she cut short her studies at the University of Texas and headed to New York, where she modeled for the Conover Agency.

The former Beryl Ann Longino posed for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour and other magazines. But to this day, she has not disclosed the name she worked under--nor does she plan to.

"I have not told anybody that name," Bentsen said firmly, "and I have no intention of telling anyone what my modeling name was."

It was all a long time ago, she added. "Would you like everybody to see your baby pictures?"

Comfortable With Camera

Even now, however, Bentsen is so comfortable with the camera that she vamped briefly for a newspaper photographer, playfully draping herself into a sinuous, fashion-model pose before a campaign aide urged her to stop, saying, "someone might think you're being serious."

Both her modeling career and her college education came to a halt 45 years ago when she married Lloyd Bentsen, back then a young military officer. Much has been made of the Bentsens' six-date courtship, but as B.A. Bentsen pointed out, "Well, it did stretch out for quite a while."

They met in 1941 at a Sigma Nu party at the University of Texas. Lloyd Bentsen, tall, good looking and rich, was the fraternity's president. They dated briefly, and after she took off for New York, they stayed in touch by letter. Bentsen, in fact, proposed in a letter.

She agreed to marry him without a moment's hesitation, she says. "I've had to depend on myself quite a bit," she added. "You learn to make decisions."

A Sad Period

Along with a husband, the new Mrs. Bentsen filled a huge gap in her life by acquiring a large, loving family. Her mother had died when she was 6. By the time she was 12, she had lost her father and all her grandparents. An only child, she spent the rest of her childhood with an unmarried aunt.

An inheritance from her father, Burl, owner of a successful furniture store, made for an adolescence of material comfort. She drove her own car as a teen-ager and, friends recall, hung out with the "in crowd." But underneath the popularity and the good looks, she experienced terrible loneliness.

"You don't really know that you're different when you're that age," Bentsen said. "You miss having big celebrations with the family at Christmas and Thanksgiving, things like that, but you don't really think about it."

Still, she said, "I was lonely. It was a very sad period in my life."

Lacking parents or grandparents for guidance, "You have to grow up pretty soon," Bentsen said.

While she traces her reserves of inner strength to that period, Bentsen claims no personal credit for the durability of her character. Rather, she attributed it to her deep religious faith--she joined the First Christian Church of Lufkin, Tex., when she was 11.

"That is what has carried me through," she said. "I don't know how people get by without it."

She turns to the Bible for solace as well as enlightenment, Bentsen said, adding that her Bible study group is "one of the most enjoyable things I do all week."

She draws heavily on her faith also in facing the sadness of two handicapped grandsons. Ryan Bentsen, 7, was born with serious brain damage, the result, his grandmother said, of a near miscarriage his mother experienced while carrying him.

"He didn't talk until he was 4," she said. "But he's getting better every day. The good Lord is looking after him."

No Set Agenda

For 5-year-old Richard Smith, son of the Bentsens' only daughter (they have two sons), the outlook is less rosy. Richard was born with Down's syndrome, and is "very frail," his grandmother said in a voice that sounds misty. Recently, "his immune system has broken down, and he isn't going to be able to go to school."

Though she has no set agenda of what causes she would adopt as wife of a vice president, Bentsen said that as a result of her experience with her grandchildren, "I am very interested in small children," and particularly, in "good prenatal health care." She worries also about the rising number of "young unwed mothers" and vowed to make halting unwanted teen pregnancy a priority.

But "my goal at the moment," Bentsen said, "is to win the election on Nov. 8."

Stumping with her husband on her seventh campaign, including one national effort when Bentsen made an unsuccessful stab at the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, Bentsen volunteers her suspicion that her presence alongside her husband does little to sway voters in their direction.

"They are very nice; they say lovely things," she said. "But I have no idea whether it makes any difference." She paused just a moment. "I doubt it, really."

Nevertheless, she allowed that the role of a candidate's wife "has changed tremendously" in recent elections. "You really didn't know anything about Bess Truman or Mamie Eisenhower," she said. And with the conspicuous exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, Bentsen said, "it wasn't until Mrs. Kennedy that the wives began to think they had to have a project of some kind."

'Not an Adviser'

While Marilyn Quayle appears at times to be a strong presence in her husband's political career, Beryl Ann Bentsen insisted she plays almost no decision-making role in her husband's profession. She watches Senate proceedings on C-SPAN television whenever she is at home, she said, and "certainly I know what's going on on the Hill."

But when Lloyd Bentsen comes home from the office, "usually he has a stack of papers to work on. I don't bother him."

She made it clear that in the political arena "I am not an adviser in any sense of the word. I am a critic," listening to her husband's speeches and offering pointers from time to time. But "it is not advice," she emphasized, "just a critique."

"Lloyd doesn't look to her for his positions on international economics," longtime friend Washington attorney Lloyd Hand said. "But they don't have a leader-follower relationship, either."

On the tennis court, however, this is not always the case. The Bentsens are known in Washington as a formidable doubles team, and each Fourth of July for the past 20 years they have escaped for a long weekend at John Gardner's tennis ranch in the Carmel Valley.

"Sometimes I have heard it said that married couples should never play bridge together, and I don't know but that shouldn't be said about tennis, too," Bentsen said.

The Bentsens also hunt, she said, not large animals but birds, particularly white-winged dove or quail, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

Advised that the quail is the state bird of California, she cringed.

"Oh, dear, I've said something wrong." But she hastily recovered by explaining the hunting as population-control for the birds.

"Poor little things, you know they won't last," she said.

She expressed surprise when asked her position on gun control.

"My position?" she said. "Nobody has ever asked me what my position is."

But "the nominee and my husband," she added, believe "all people have a right to have guns and weapons in their home" for sport. "The idea that the Republicans are saying that the Democrats are going to take people's guns away from them is not true," Bentsen said. "I think it's disgusting that they're saying that."

Her husband opposes "those killer bullets--what do you call them?--dumdums" as well as "plastic handguns," Bentsen said, "but that doesn't have anything to do with sportsmen. It's a law enforcement issue about the guns that murder people."

A Prayer Before Takeoff

The Bentsens prefer to campaign together, not separately, she said. And even now, so many years after the crash in Texas, they squeeze each other's hands and say a prayer each time their plane takes off.

But B.A. Bentsen does not like to dwell on the negative. That plane crash was actually very instructional, she said.

"My husband said he had sat for 25 years at the dinner table waiting for me to finish my meal. I was always the last one up from the table," a fact that apparently played havoc on her husband's nervous system.

But when the plane hit the ground, "I was the first one out. I took off like nobody's business." Her husband, she said, "found out that I just had to be properly motivated."

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