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.
Today, Bennett defends the votes that turned the election against him. They are the result, he says, of his willingness to work beyond his party lines.
"I've tried to be a team player," Bennett says on a recent November afternoon at his Salt Lake office. "That is one of the things that got me in trouble with these people who voted against me. They hate the team. And the fact that I played on the team."
Years earlier, in his heyday of popularity, Bennett was loved by Utahns who respected his stability and resolve to stick by his principles. In 2004, he had no primary challengers and won almost 70 percent of the vote.
As a ranking member of the appropriations committee, Bennett was in a key position to angle for federal funds for Utah, and he brought the state billions. Utah's light rail and commuter rail projects were mostly funded through those dollars. In 2009 alone Bennett received approval for $75 million for Utah projects — including some at Utah State University and the University of Utah. By comparison his counterpart, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was involved in drafting one bill that brought home money — a $3 million appropriation to the U. for energy grants.
Bennett also garnered funding for projects in smaller counties across the state, consistently angled for money for the state's public and higher education system and bolstered Hill Air Force Base.
He believed that more was accomplished in Washington through working on committees and one-on-one interaction among senators than grandstanding before a camera or making a vote on the Senate floor.
"Nothing happened that he wasn't part of," said Mike Leavitt, Bennett's friend, former Utah governor and secretary of Health and Human Services. "People don't know that, and it wasn't all that important to Bob to make sure they knew it. In retrospect, you might say maybe it would have been better for them to know, but what was important to him was to do the best job he could, and he did that."
Bennett approached his goals to strengthen Utah strategically, though his methods were not embraced by all of his colleagues and he drew criticism for it.
"This is a people business, and you'd better be prepared to get along, not necessarily compromising your principles, but understanding the difference between a solid principle which you will never compromise and a deal which can be made if you're willing to act in good faith with someone who happens to disagree with you," Bennett said in his last radio address as a senator. "That personal quality is, I think, one thing that distinguishes an effective senator from one who's not effective."
As more senators like Bennett leave office, some worry what will happen if the voices that advocate moderation diminish. This last election, Rep. Mike Castle, R-Delaware, in Congress since 1993 and known for his moderate stance, lost in his state's primary to a more conservative candidate. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in office since 2002, lost her state's primary to a tea party candidate, then won re-election as a write-in candidate, and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, a moderate Republican in office since 1993, is retiring. The changes have remaining moderate representatives worried they will be next.
"There is a concern going forward, that if you lose people like Senator Bennett, then we will have even more polarization in Congress and at the federal level and they won't be able to accomplish anything," says political analyst LaVarr Webb. "Any time you lose a senator with that much seniority and respect, I think it will hurt, but those transitions do happen and they have to happen."
It's election night, about a month before his farewell speech to the Senate, and Bennett is walking into a television studio with a hurried, long-legged stride about a minute before he goes on the air.
Dressed in a dark suit, his height makes him seem intimidating, but he has an approachability that is quickly endearing and disarming.
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.
"When I went to Washington, I said, 'I don't want my walls covered with pictures of myself,'" Bennett says, as his grandchildren naturally gravitate into nearby chairs to listen to his story. "I wanted people to see pictures of Utah."
Bennett lives in the house his parents originally built in 1949 in the Avenues. It's a humble one-story rambler with a view of the entire valley, custom glass doors and a hidden china cabinet built into the dining room. He thinks of his parents as he gazes through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and he sees reminders of their thoughtful influence throughout the house.
Across the walls, there's a hand-made quilt, a canvas he bought from a street vendor in Moscow, and another from Vietnam. There's more art in his townhouse in Virginia, where he and his wife will continue to live part-time. The collections are a gallery of his time in office, little scenes and flashes of color that remind him of his travels and home state.
When the legislative session ends, he will begin teaching, lecturing and mentoring at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He also plans to be a part-time counselor at a Washington, D.C., law firm, join the Bipartisan Policy Center as a resident scholar, and head the Bennett Consulting Group, a group of Washington consultants who intend to join forces in a planned international organization.
"I do not view my departure from the Senate as the end of my career," he says. "I simply view it as a change of venues."55 comments on this story
But as his days as a senator quickly fade, some things are already different. The random signs of Senate leadership around the house — needlepoint pillows and collector's stamps scattered here and there — are now souvenirs.
And his role as grandpa has slowly usurped the government. That much was clear as his 11-year-old grandson sat him down for an interview to complete a class assignment that afternoon. They sat under one of his paintings.
"What do they want to know about the Senate?" he asked his grandson.
"Well, it's not — she just said interview someone who is older than you, and I chose you," the little boy replied.
"Oh," Bennett said with a laugh. "I hope you get an A."