SALT LAKE CITY — Former Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, who was known during his 18 years representing the conservative state as someone who could work across the aisle, has died at age 82.
Bennett assistant Tara Tanner said he died Wednesday at his home in Arlington, Virginia, from complications of pancreatic cancer and a recent stroke.
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The Republican was first elected in 1992 and was widely seen at home as politically moderate, which at times put him at odds with Utah’s highly conservative Republican base. His middle-of-the-road reputation led to his ouster in 2010 at the state convention by delegates fueled by tea party anger.
Former Utah congresswoman Enid Greene Mickelsen, whose single term in the mid-1990s overlapped with Bennett, remembered him as a thoughtful and well-read person. He carried nothing but a novel on his flights commuting from Washington to Utah. Bennett also had a sense of humor, she said, remembering campaign ads he ran that poked fun at the tall, bald senator’s looks.
“He was someone who stayed calm when lots of other people were running around thinking the sky had fallen,” Mickelsen said.
Bennett had a stroke on April 11 that paralyzed the left side of his body and left him unable to stand or swallow. The cancer he had been diagnosed with a year earlier had spread to his stomach and near his liver and he began receiving hospice care, Bennett told the Deseret News last month.
President Barack Obama said in a statement yesterday that that he and the first lady were saddened to learn of Bennett’s death and remembered the former senator as a dedicated public servant who put aside differences to work on common goals.
“For 18 years, Bob worked tirelessly in the United States Senate for his fellow Utahns,” the statement said. “His commitment to his constituents transcended partisanship and he often reached across the aisle to get things done.”
Bennett was criticized by opponents within his own party for being in office too long after promising to only serve two terms, for supporting a bailout for distressed banks, and for working with Democrats on his own health care bill to require Americans to buy health insurance.
In the run-up to the 2010 election, Bennett took on a decidedly more conservative tone. But he failed to sway several thousand Republican state delegates, a generally more conservative group that selected the party’s candidate in a caucus system.
Following his loss, Bennett ran a consulting firm and worked as a lobbyist in Washington.
He also became a resident scholar with the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and penned regular opinion columns for Salt Lake City newspapers.
The former senator also became a vocal critic of the conservative wing of the party. He repeatedly said it was pushing the party away from mainstream Americans in favor of ultraconservatives in the model of Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee in 1964 who was soundly defeated in the presidential election.
Orrin Hatch, Utah’s other senator since 1977, remembered Bennett as someone who was widely respected in the Senate as someone who sought innovative solutions.
“I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude,” Hatch said later in a video statement he recorded while in Israel yesterday.
Bennett is survived by his wife, Joyce, six children and 20 grandchildren.