Beliefs Culture Election Government & Politics Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion Politics

Mormon senator’s death marks the end of an era for a Trump-free GOP

Sen. Robert Bennett, 82, died yesterday—a one-two punch of pancreatic cancer and a recent stroke.

The Salt Lake Tribune has two excellent tributes to him, including:

Something that comes home in both pieces is Senator Bennett’s willingness to seek solutions and his refusal to become entrenched in ideology for its own sake. What tanked his political career was the rise of the Tea Party and Bennett’s own decision, during the financial crisis, to vote for the TARP bill that he believed would save our nation from the brink of financial disaster. It did—but tell that to the angry hordes who promptly booted him from office for the sin of cooperating with Democrats.

In my mind it’s hard not to link Sen. Bennett’s passing yesterday with the disturbing news that preceded it the night before: that with Tuesday’s withdrawal of Ted Cruz from the Republican run for the presidency, Donald Trump will be the 2016 GOP nominee.

Trump and Bennett could not be more opposite.

  •      Trump comes to the table with absolutely no experience of public service, Bennett with a lifetime of it—and then some, since his father held the same Senate seat before him.
  •      Trump stakes his claim on saying the most outrageous, insulting things possible about outsider groups, hoping to stoke suspicion and even hatred in the American voter. Bennett took the opposite tack, praising U.S. Muslims for their contributions to American life and refusing to engage in the scapegoating of a minority group.
  •      Robert Bennett was a man of deep religious faith. Some years ago, when I was involved in a small group of Mormon scholars who met annually, Sen. Bennett opened his D.C. office to us for the day to hold our meeting. During a break from his work, he came to join us at the conference table, expressing gratitude for our work. He also told us about a book he was working on about the Book of Mormon, a project done in his spare time as a labor of love.
  •      Bennett was a consistent conservative, Trump a mere opportunist. And while I didn’t agree with most of Bennett’s political positions, I had respect for him as a person. I have zero respect for Trump.

In short, Robert Bennett was a politician because he saw it as a platform to do good for the nation. Donald Trump wants to reinvent himself as a politician because he sees the presidency as an irresistible platform for his narcissism.

Maybe it’s a blessing that Bennett won’t live to see the further implosion of the political party—and the nation—he worked to build and protect.



About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Funny, I just wrote this same thing last night on my Facebook wall.

    “With a breath of irony, a member of the old guard, the real conservatives, the principled leaders, a senator’s senator, the respected and all around class act Bob Bennet of Utah—who we may now revere as one of the good ones, one of the republicans back when that meant something more than a cheap slogan and a mean insult—has died, along with the GOP, today.

    I thought he represented Utah well. And he showed true leadership against the racketeering and opportunistic invasion of the tea party and other extreme forces that took over his party and eventually killed it. He called them “slogan screamers” and in his courage and dignity, I think we can mourn more than his passing, but mourn the bygone era of his kind of respectable conservative politics.”

  • “the sin of cooperating with Democrats”? It was passed under a Republican administration. Even Utahans get tired of the establishment sometimes.

  • I have appreciated this essay by the Senior Senator Bennett. It appeared in a Q&A segment in the June 1976 Ensign(4th entry).
    What is the role of compromise in government? Is it a good principle, or does it inevitably involve lowering one’s standards?

    “There are those who maintain that any compromise is evil or shameful because it may involve some surrender of “principle” or freedom. Unfortunately, my years in the Senate have taught me that those who talk of “principle” in this context really mean “interest”—their self-interest. Nor is compromise a true diminution of one’s freedom or free agency, because the scriptures are full of admonitions to use our freedom in the service of others and not for our selfish ends. Christ said, “Agree with thine adversary quickly.” (Matt. 5:25.)

    Because conflicts and disagreements are natural experiences in the lives of everyone, the search for a solution through “a mutual promise” is natural and praiseworthy. Nowhere is this more true and real than in the divinely ordained institutions of marriage and the family. And when conflicts arise that do not cure themselves, the power and responsibility to act as arbiter rests upon the parents, and chiefly upon the father, who holds the priesthood. Hopefully, compromise within the family circle will be motivated and moderated by love. When one or more family members in the name of their “free agency” will not compromise, but seek to go their own way, this is pure selfishness. It could, and often does, break up the family as a viable unit of the kingdom of God.

    The same thing is true as we move out beyond the family into the community and the nation. Here, however, the potential conflicts are greater in number and complexity, and usually instead of dealing with individuals, many groups are involved. At the same time, the healing power of family love has disappeared and self-interest has risen to fill the void. All this makes the need for an outside arbiter more imperative, and the obvious entity to secure this role is government, which has power to enforce its decisions. The fact that God intended this or at least approves of it is set forth clearly in the twelfth Article of Faith.”

  • He sounds like the kind of politician America needs, respectful and respectable. Tea baggers, take a lesson.

  • Bennett was a great politician, but he witnessed the “implosion” of his party when he was unseated by a primary challenge from Tea Party darling Mike Lee. Donald Trump is merely the Tea Party taken to its logical conclusion. Sen. Bennett lived to see all but the death rattle.

  • I’m not a Trump fan and I liked Bennett but I just want to point out one thing the article mentioned. Not having an experience as a politician because you worked in private sector is not a vice. Having a career as a politician is not a virtue.