Bob Bennett was a rightwing conservative senator from Utah. He served in the US Senate for 18 years, and I rarely agreed with him on anything. He was consistently earning high ratings from conservative activist groups such as the National Rifle Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Conservative Union.
But in 2010, something happened — the emergence of the Tea Party. They deemed Bob insufficiently conservative. Despite an enthusiastic endorsement from Mitt Romney, Bennett was denied a place on the primary ballot by the 2010 Utah State Republican Convention, placing third behind two Tea-Party-backed candidates.
He never practiced national politics again. He died two weeks ago of pancreatic cancer.
And how did he spend much of his last few days? Feeling regret for what the GOP had become, regret for Trump, and regret for the hand that he had in its creation:
Former GOP senator Bob Bennett lay partially paralyzed in his bed on the fourth floor of the George Washington University Hospital. He was dying.
Not 48 hours had passed since a stroke had complicated his yearlong fight against pancreatic cancer. The cancer had begun to spread again, necessitating further chemotherapy. The stroke had dealt a further blow that threatened to finish him off.
Between the hectic helter-skelter of nurses, doctors and well wishes from a long-cultivated community of friends and former aides, Bennett faced a quiet moment with his son Jim and his wife Joyce.
It was not a moment for self-pity.
Instead, with a slight slurring in his words, Bennett drew them close to express a dying wish: “Are there any Muslims in the hospital?” he asked.
“I’d love to go up to every single one of them to thank them for being in this country, and apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump,” Bennett told his wife and son, both of whom relayed this story to The Daily Beast.
The rise of Donald Trump had appalled the three-term Utah senator, a Republican who fell victim to the tea-party wave of the 2010 midterms. His vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, had alienated many conservative activists in his state, who chose lawyer Mike Lee as the GOP nominee for Senate instead.
But as Bennett reflected on his life and legacy in mid-April, following the stroke, he wasn’t focused on the race that ended his political career. Instead, he brought up the issue of Muslims in America—over and over again.
He mentioned it briefly in a hospital interview with the Deseret News, a Utah news outlet. “There’s a lot of Muslims here in this area. I’m glad they’re here,” the former senator told the newspaper in April, describing them as “wonderful.”
“In the last days of his life this was an issue that was pressing in his mind… disgust for Donald Trump’s xenophobia,” Jim Bennett said. “At the end of his life he was preoccupied with getting things done that he had felt was left undone.”
Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigrants from America had outraged the former senator, his wife Joyce said, triggering his instincts to do what he could on a personal level. They ultimately did not canvass the hospital, but Bennett had already made an effort in his last months of life.
As they traveled from Washington to Utah for Christmas break, Bennett approached a woman wearing a hijab in the airport.
“He would go to people with the hijab [on] and tell them he was glad they were in America, and they were welcome here,” his wife said. “He wanted to apologize on behalf of the Republican Party.”
“He was astonished and aghast that Donald Trump had the staying power that he had… He had absolutely no respect for Donald Trump, and I think got angry and frustrated when it became clear that the party wasn’t going to steer clear of Trumpism,” his son relayed.
Not the first time this has happened. I remember Lee Atwater — the creative mind behind the “Southern strategy” — doing the same thing. Isn’t it interesting that as people get closer to seeing their God, they become liberals?