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LOSS OF BENTSEN’S WISDOM A REAL BLOW TO WHITE HOUSE

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DURING A TROUBLED time when President Clinton can use all the help he can get, the departure of Secretary of Treasury Lloyd Bentsen is a serious blow.

Seldom has there been an administration more in need of a distinguished elder statesman.Bentsen has been a valuable asset both as a symbol of fiscal conservatism and as one of the few advisers on Clinton's team with seasoned judgment, lengthy congressional experience and unquestioned veracity.

Stunned by the Democratic defeat, the president is seeking to return to the middle-class themes that carried him to the White House but were lost in the subsequent chaos of partisan confrontation. Bentsen has long championed such a course, believing firmly in holding down the center in all things social and economic.

But Clinton didn't always follow Bentsen's counsel.

And their personalities didn't mesh comfortably. Bentsen, who is orderly, punctual and meticulous, was often isolated in an administration full of clumsy amateurs who lurched without direction from crisis to crisis.

He was known to be disillusioned with White House decision-making and irritated at the lack of deference shown him by White House officials a generation or more younger than he. And although he emerged unscathed from the Whitewater tempest that embroiled lesser Treasury officials, he was disgusted by the careless ethical behavior that provoked the fuss in the first place.

Even so, it was reassuring to know that the bumbling, chauvinist Clinton Baby Boomers were at least sometimes forced to listen to the classy 73-year-old Texan.

The timing of his retirement, although it comes during a period of economic growth and was planned before the November election debacle, is politically unfortunate.

Bentsen understood Capitol Hill, where he had served as Senate Finance Committee chairman, better than anybody around Clinton except White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. He knew how to build political consensus. He understood how to be a statesman and a partisan and when to quit being one or the other, a skill Clinton has yet to master.

He knew how to engage the central point of an issue and avoid being distracted by peripheral concerns, also a talent in short White House supply.

Now Clinton must scramble to save his presidency during the next two years in the face of a newly energized and powerful Republican opposition without Bentsen's steadying presence and years of accumulated political knowledge.