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.
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.
His concern for Muslims was not the only issue he raised in his last days: to his brother-in-law, he spoke urgently on plans for low-income housing in Salt Lake City; to his son Jim, he mentioned a land management plan to mitigate the effects of drought.
“His sense of humor was still there,” his wife recalls, as the former senator lay bedridden, unable to swallow or stand up. At the end of his days, Bennett cried out, “Procrustes!”—a reference, and a joke about, the Greek mythological figure who stretched or cut off people’s legs in order to force them to fit on a bed.
As this all occurred, letters flowed in from former staff and friends from a long career in politics. One former aide recalled an incident in which she had lied to a television producer to excuse her boss’s lateness for an interview. Outed by the producer, the senator had found out about the fib.
“‘I never want you to lie for me, and I’ll never ask you or any of my staffers to lie for me,’” the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled Bennett saying to her. “I realized that I was working for a man of great integrity. It was something kind of stuck with me.”
At his D.C.-area funeral—he had two, the second in Utah—there was an outpouring of grief from both sides of the aisle. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid spoke at the service.
“As someone who worked hard to bring both sides together to solve problems, it was only fitting that Bob Bennett brought together the Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader to deliver remarks at his memorial service,” Tara DiJulio, a former Bennett spokesperson, told The Daily Beast. “When there was a problem before us, he always worked hard and challenged his staff to find common ground between both parties without wavering on his core principles.”
The Tea Party wave that ousted Bennett from the Senate in 2010 was one of the first signs of popular discontent that has arguably led to the tsunami of support for Donald Trump. As that initial wave receded, it swept away many of the values that Bennett cherished: bipartisanship and concern for vulnerable refugees among them.
But even as he was passing away, Bennett struggled to press the issues—to ensure that though his life was ending, the ideas he held dear would not go with it. He died Wednesday, May 4.