Former Senator Bob Bennett, an extremely conservative Utah Republican who was thrown under the Tea Party clown car in Utah’s 2010 state Republican convention for being “too liberal” (he actually spoke to Democrats now and again), died May 4 at the age of 82. He’d been under treatment for pancreatic cancer for over a year, and had also suffered a stroke in April. While his family was spending some quiet time with him at George Washington University Hospital, a few days before his death, Bennett had a question for his son, Jim Bennett: “Are there any Muslims in the hospital?”
At first, the younger Bennett thought maybe the out-of-nowhere question might have had something to do with the stroke.
But Jim said his father, even after the stroke, was “sharp as a tack.”
“So I was standing there with him in the hospital and out of nowhere he asked me, ‘Are there any Muslims in this hospital?'” Jim Bennett told NBC News Wednesday evening.
“I said, ‘Yes, dad, I’m sure there are.'” Jim said of the conversation, which was first reported by the Daily Beast. “And he was very emotional and said, ‘I want to go up to every single one of them and apologize, I want to go up to every single one of them and tell them how grateful I am that they are in this country and apologize on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump.'”
Jim Bennett said his mother, Joyce Bennett, told him that the former senator had made a habit of trying to “express a sense of inclusion” to Muslims, saying it was “something that he was doing quite a lot of in the last months of his life.”
Joyce told her son that his father had approached people wearing hijabs in an airport to “let them know that he was grateful they were in the country and the country was better for them being here.”
We don’t wish to take away from how decent a thing that was, but we’d also note how often it seems former Republican lawmakers look back at their political careers and their former colleagues and think maybe they have something to apologize for. Or for the direction their party has taken after they were in the middle of cutting budgets, fighting affirmative action, and excoriating poor people. We don’t recall any stories of aging liberals looking back and saying they wished they could go back and cut taxes for the rich or allow more toxic sludge to be dumped into wetlands.George W. Bush’s public statements that we were at war with al Qaeda, not Islam.
Jim said that his father became interested in Islam after 9/11, citing a desire to be informed about the religion while making policy decisions in the wake of terrorist attacks.
“He spent a lot of time studying Islam and wanting to be informed enough to that he wouldn’t be making decisions on the floor of the Senate ignorantly,” Jim said.
Jim Bennett also said his father had become “increasingly troubled” by Trump’s popularity in the Republican primaries:
I think Trump’s rise was really the motivation for him to recognize the importance of expressing his desire for inclusion. He just felt it was his responsibly to push back.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Jim Bennett said his father’s disgust with Trump was tied into his identity as a Mormon:
Bennett’s Mormon faith also played into his beliefs on Trump and Muslims: the billionaire’s proposal to ban Muslims prompted the LDS Church to issue a statement in support of religious freedom, quoting its founder saying he would “die in defending the rights … of any denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”
“That was something my father felt very keenly — recognizing the parallel between the Mormon experience and the Muslim experience. [He] wanted to see these people treated with kindness, and not ostracized,” Jim Bennett said.
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell spoke to Jim Bennett Thursday about his father’s last days:
So farewell to Bob Bennett. He may have been an ultra-conservative who never met a talking point from the Heritage Foundation he didn’t like, had top ratings from the NRA and the American Conservative Union, consistently opposed gay rights and environmental protection, and even voted against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But in a year when his own party was wildly enthusiastic about hating Muslims, Bennett spent his last months trying to oppose that anti-Muslim bigotry, and that counts for something. Even though he knew he didn’t have much time left, Bob Bennett was a mensch.