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Bennett's style on the wane in today's polarized politics
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In the age of Fox News and the Drudge Report, Sen. Bob Bennett seems thoroughly out of place. With a professorial demeanor and a half-century of political experience, he shuns talking points and rarely jumps into partisan clashes.

Instead, he's a man more comfortable working behind the scenes, securing money for Utah projects, smoothing out bureaucratic problems, whispering in the ear of the Republican leader.

Now engaged in a fierce battle to keep his job, Bennett, 76, is hearing from incensed Republican delegates that they want a fighter. They want someone to publicly and loudly combat what they see as the excesses of the Obama agenda.

"So I do my best to give them anger and passion when I'm talking to them one on one," Bennett says. "I don't necessarily toot my horn in the way I think most politicians do and I apparently have paid the price for it. I'm trying to repent."

But that's not easy for a man who cemented his senatorial philosophy watching his father toil in the minority during the turbulent 1960s.

Sen. Wallace Bennett asked his son to manage his 1964 campaign and later hired him to serve as his chief of staff in Washington. It was during this time, as Congress fought over the Civil Rights Act, that Bob Bennett heard his father utter the line on which he would later model his political career.

"My father said: 'We legislate at the highest level at which we can obtain a majority.'" Restating it in his own words, Bennett said: "You have to be willing to reach out and not just say 'I alone am going to solve this problem.' "

That means developing a rapport among members of both parties and being OK with credit falling to others. As a consequence, Bennett may be one of the least known three-term senators.

"He literally is the sobering yin to the raging yang of this place," said Tim Stewart, a lobbyist who previously worked for Bennett and remains close to the senator. Stewart considers Bennett a statesman rather than a politician. "In the age of C-SPAN, there are plenty of politicians. I've never seen him play to the C-SPAN cameras."

Bennett is the rare politician who shuns canned speeches and talking points. He speaks almost exclusively off-the-cuff relying on the skills he honed as a successful college debater.

"I look at my colleagues who read everything and I say, 'I don't want to go there until I absolutely have to.' And when the time comes when I absolutely have to, I probably ought to think about getting out of the Senate," he said.

But as a consequence, he can be verbose, something he is aware of. That may be why he isn't on the A-list for 24-hour news networks or Sunday morning talk shows, but to be honest, he doesn't like those TV appearances anyway.

"They want a senator there they can scream at and try to make him look bad," Bennett said. "Combat for combat's sake is not something that appeals to me."

He considers his major accomplishments to include helping bring light rail to Salt Lake County, and securing funding for the Olympics, earmarks for Utah's universities and the first major compromise between rural Utah leaders and environmentalists in a generation in the Washington County land use bill.

Bennett also touts his close friendship with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, which grew from their mutual opposition to campaign finance bills and a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.

Bennett is now McConnell's close confidant and, as expected, McConnell gushes about his friend.

"He is not preachy. When he's got a point to make, he has a nice way of getting you to listen," McConnell said. "I've served with a lot of senators over the time I've been here, he is among the best liked, most conservative and most effective."

Jim Thurber, a leading congressional scholar at American University, describes Bennett as part of a dying breed of senators who don't seek the limelight and are willing to cross party lines to strike a deal.

"He's not very charismatic, but he is a guy who represents Utah very well," Thurber said.

mcanham@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mcanham@sltrib.com

Bennett's style on the wane

Who is Bob Bennett?

Three-term senator, 76 years of age.

Son of a four-term senator and grandson of an LDS Church president.

Worked as a congressional staffer, lobbyist, business leader and at one point ran a CIA cover business.

Early political career derailed by tangential ties to the Watergate scandal.

First elected in 1992 in what is still Utah's most expensive political contest, with a combined cost of $13 million. Bennett was not the biggest spender among the candidates.

Issues in 1992: entitlement programs, tax complexities and health care -- remain pertinent today.

Senator » He says reaching across aisle is the path to solutions.
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