May 10 2016
Mr. President, I rise today to pay tribute to a man who was truly a giant in my home state of Utah and in this institution, a friend to everyone he met, and someone whose life of service to the people of Utah we celebrate at the same time that we mourn his passing: Senator Robert F. Bennett.
Senator Bennett loved the political arena. Though his heart was always with his family in Utah, he spent many years working on Capitol Hill in both the Senate and the House, and later as a Congressional Liaison for the Department of Transportation. He also spent many years in business, where his management abilities and his keen mind helped build a successful corporation and earn him awards such as Inc. Magazine’s “Entrepreneur of the Year.”
But Senator Bennett’s true passion was for sound public policy. He cared little for who wrote the policy – and even less for who got the credit – so long as wise policies were enacted. This was apparent to me after a memorable conversation I had with him in 2010, just a few days before our state’s nominating convention, at which we were candidates.
I was in the lobby of a local radio station, waiting to go on air and watching the national news on a large television screen. I don’t remember the exact issue being reported, but I will never forget what happened as I watched that news broadcast. Senator Bennett walked in the lobby, and seeing me, simply strolled over to stand next to me.
To be honest, I was anticipating the type of stereotypically awkward interaction that often occurs between candidates near the end of a heated political contest. Instead, with his characteristic charm and affability, he quickly put me at ease by nodding towards the screen and saying, “you know, there’s a pretty good chance that you will be the person who has to deal with this issue.”
Having gracefully defused the situation, he proceeded to share some words of wisdom and personal insights, imparting to me the lessons he had learned from his own experience with that matter. It was clear to me that he had not only thought long and hard about it, but that he was ultimately less concerned with who addressed the issue, and more concerned with ensuring that it was done thoughtfully and wisely.
In Senator Bennett’s view, there was no such thing as a political opponent – only potential allies.
Though Senator Bennett was a serious statesman, he was also one who did not take himself too seriously. This is one of the reasons people everywhere were drawn to him.
Many Utahns will remember his flair for self-deprecating humor emblazoned on his campaign billboards in 2004. Summarizing Senator Bennett’s most distinctive qualities, one billboard read: “Bold. Brilliant. Beanpole.” In a slight variation on the theme, another read: “Big Heart. Big Ideas. Big Ears.” And, perhaps everyone’s favorite declared: “Better looking than Abraham Lincoln” – adding parenthetically, “just barely.” In the political arena, where inflated egos loom large, Bob Bennett was a breath of fresh air.
Senator Bennett’s command of public policy was legendary. He could speak extemporaneously and at length on everything from the federal budget, to Utah’s changing demographics, to business trends – and never with any notes. He was a master storyteller who had the uncanny ability to entertain and challenge his audience at the same time – the result of a lifetime of learning and profound thinking. He always maintained an open mind, never unwilling to rethink policy issues in light of new information. These qualities are but a few of the reasons that he was a trusted by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Though much has been written about his public and political accomplishments, there was a side to him that does not receive the attention it deserves. A day in the life of a U.S. Senator is often stressful and invariably unpredictable. Under such circumstances the likelihood of error is high, and as one of his staffers once told me, “there were plenty of times that scheduling mistakes were made, and anger at us certainly would have been justified.” But these same staffers also said that in 18 years in the United States Senate, they never saw Bob Bennett get angry, or even so much as raise his voice, at his staff members.
He was always kind, patient, and understanding with them, and they were committed and loyal to him in return. I’m convinced that one of the reasons so many members of the Senate trusted Bob completely was because they saw how his own staff trusted him, and how he returned that trust.
Senator Bennett was a man of the utmost integrity, and was the same calm, deliberate, and thoughtful person whether speaking in public or speaking to close confidants. At 6’6”, he towered over most people, but that didn’t prevent him from meeting people where they were, treating everyone with dignity and respect, and exhibiting true understanding and compassion.
Whether he was talking with ranchers in Iron County, consoling a grieving parent visiting him in his Salt Lake office, or debating the Chairman of the Federal Reserve during a Banking Committee hearing, Bob Bennett treated everyone the same – with kindness and concern.
He often quoted President Reagan’s famous aphorism that “there is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” But Senator Bennett didn’t just recite these words, he lived them.
On more than one occasion, he worked for months on end to craft a legislative solution to a difficult issue, only to discover at the last moment that the price of its passage would be to give all the credit to someone else. Because his objective was – first and foremost – to make sure that the right thing was done, this was a price that he was always willing to pay.
Since the election in 2010, I have been asked countless times about my relationship with Senator Bennett. My answer invariably reminds me of the great privilege it is to serve the state of Utah in his seat: our conversations were always meaningful and focused on innovative approaches to dealing with difficult policy issues. A consummate statesman, he always made clear to me that good policy is always good politics in the end.
Senator Bennett’s achievements were numerous, and he will be remembered for his tremendous impact on the state of Utah. However, I am certain that if he were to make a list of his greatest achievements, it would likely say nothing about his business or political endeavors. Rather, it would focus entirely on family—his dear wife Joyce, the six children that they raised together, and their 20 grandchildren.
Mr. President, Senator Bennett truly was, in every way, a giant. He was a man of integrity; a man whose word was truly his bond; a man who left both the state of Utah and his country better than he found them. He was a man who had a firm and unwavering commitment to his Faith in God, and was true to that Faith until the end. It is my hope and prayer that Senator Bennett’s wife Joyce, his children, and his grandchildren are comforted at this difficult time, knowing that our state and country are forever grateful for their husband, father, and grandfather’s exemplary life of service.