Amy Choate-Nielsen: Leaving Washington: After 18 years in office, Bob Bennett looks to the future
Keith Johnson, Deseret News
WASHINGTON D.C. — Sen. Bob Bennett stands, one hand on a podium, one hand in his pocket, about to take a rite of passage that a little over seven months ago, he didn't see coming.
He clears his throat, and a gavel raps for attention.
"I think I will wait until there is a little more order," he says over the clamor as men and women in suits scatter across the plush blue carpet and through the U.S. Senate chamber doors.
It is a bittersweet moment. After 18 years of serving as a Republican senator for Utah, Bennett is saying goodbye.
"This is an extraordinary place with extraordinary people
who are dedicated to the country and dedicated to doing the right thing," he tells about 30 of his colleagues — Republicans and Democrats — listening to his address. "Yes, there is a difference between the two parties. Yes, we disagree. But if we can disagree in an effort to solve the problems of the country and be willing on occasion to say maybe the other side is right, we will move forward."
Over the course of his career, Bennett's even temper and willingness to work with "the other side" earned him senior-level positions on influential Senate committees and respect from the top leaders of the country — but it also cost him the re-election.
For years, Bennett brought billions of dollars to his home state through federal funds and developed a reputation for being a politician who reached across party lines, but in May, at a volatile state convention, those very actions caused his defeat. For some, his long career in D.C. meant he was out of touch with the needs of Utahns back home, and his bipartisan efforts meant he had compromised too much to still be considered a bona fide conservative. Now, as Bennett's time in office wanes and America's political climate embraces a greater extreme in dividing party lines, the senator's removal represents more than just the end of one man's political career — in his absence, the days of the moderate statesman might also be numbered.
Bennett's not willing to grieve his upcoming departure, though his speech is now over. There are still a few days before the session officially ends.
"I'm not dead yet," he says with a smile as his colleagues rise to give him a standing ovation.
Several months earlier, in May, Bennett stood on a different stage, at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City. It was the state Republican convention, and delegates nominated in neighborhood caucuses were massed to narrow their senatorial choices to one.
In the months leading up to the convention, it was no secret that Bennett was drawing heat for his support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, and working on a bipartisan health care bill that would have provided private options. More than once, people told Bennett they hated him, and in July 2009, a conservative radio talk show host gave him an on-air death threat as he called for constituents to visit his home in Salt Lake City and demand his resignation or remove him with a bullet.
Bennett still had hoped that his campaign would pull through against his tea party competitors, Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, but the atmosphere at the convention was volatile.
As Mitt Romney, a Utah favorite, introduced and endorsed Bennett over the loudspeaker, boos and jeers echoed against the applause around the hall. Bennett stood quite still, a slight frown on his face, at the sound. When he lost there were cheers.
He spoke to the clamoring reporters after his defeat, and tears ran down his cheeks in a moment when he paid homage to his family and staff for their support. It stung to lose, that was true, but it hurt more to think of his employees as casualties of his decisions.
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