Amy Choate-Nielsen: Leaving Washington: After 18 years in office, Bob Bennett looks to the future

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 2010 12:29 a.m. MST

It's close to 1 a.m. Eastern time, but the 77-year-old doesn't seem tired. Normally, he'd spend this evening waiting for results with his fellow Republicans at the party across town, but tonight, it's not clear if he was even invited to the gathering. He's here in the KSL studio to give commentary on the results.

"I don't know that anybody cares," he says, bemused. "The king is dead, long live the king."

Bennett has a wry sense of humor that is occasionally self-deprecating and a blunt honesty that prohibits a public alter ego. What you see — a smile and a seriousness that's hard to shake — is what you get.

"He is your atypical Washington politician," said Doug Foxley, Bennett's friend and former competitor who ran an opposing campaign before Bennett beat him in his first election. "He isn't handsome. He isn't pretty. He doesn't fit the stereotype of anything. He doesn't have the hair, the fake smile or the fake teeth — he is the real deal."

Bennett grew up in Salt Lake City, attended East High School, then graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in political science. He got his start in politics in 1962 as the chief of staff for his father, Sen. Wallace Bennett, who served in the Senate for 24 years. Bob Bennett was a lobbyist for J.C. Penney, then a member of President Richard Nixon's administration, and at 37, bought a Washington consulting firm that represented high-profile clients such as the LDS Church and billionaire Howard Hughes.

Bennett lost his business when one of his employees, E. Howard Hunt, was indicted for planning the Watergate break-in while working for him, so he packed up his office, closed the doors and took a job in California working exclusively for Hughes.

"I had not wanted to work for them full-time, but frankly, I had no choice," said Bennett, who had four small children at the time. "When you lose your income and you have your mortgage to pay and everyone thinks you're a criminal, it's pretty stressful."

There were a few times Bennett missed payments on his home — he mentioned them recently during a banking committee hearing examining the faulty foreclosure process — but eventually, his situation stabilized as he became president of Franklin Quest, a tiny Utah business that grew into a multinational company traded on the New York Stock Exchange (now known as FranklinCovey). He was working there when a Senate seat opened in 1992.

Joyce Bennett, his wife, had a sinking feeling of what might happen next.

The Bennetts have a rich Utah heritage. He is the grandson of Heber J. Grant, seventh president of the LDS Church, and she is the granddaughter of David O. McKay, the church's ninth president. Both of them loved Utah, but Bob Bennett had long had an eye on following his father's footsteps in representing the state in Washington. Joyce Bennett didn't love the idea, but she promised when she married him that she would support him in any political race he wanted — except for the presidency.

"I thought, 'uh-oh. Here we go,'" she says of her husband's choice to run for office. By then, their sixth and last child was in high school, but still, Joyce Bennett knew things would be different. "I just had to get in the mindset that he would never be around. If he was there, that was gravy, but if I depended on him, he'd disappoint me."

She doesn't expect that to change now, either, even though her husband is packing his office once again with an eye to starting over. This time, Bennett has ample choices for how he'll spend his time, but one thing is clear — it won't be in retirement.

"I'm not dead yet," he quips at the idea. "The demographers are saying within the next three or four decades the number of Americans over the age of 100 will be in the millions. I intend to be one of that number."

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and Bennett is busy at his home in Salt Lake City hanging paintings. He kept a gallery of some of his favorite Utah artists in his office in Washington, but now, since the office must be closed a week before Christmas to allow a new senator to move in, he's trying to make room on his own walls.

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