David Shribman: As the WWII vets depart
One was the first black person elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. One was a groundbreaking voice for civil rights, another for the environment. One attached his name to a signature tax-cutting measure. One has his picture on the 50-cent piece, another on the $10,000 U.S. Savings Bond, and three are pictured on postage stamps. Eighteen ran for president, and three served in the White House.
They are among the 115 senators who served in World War II. The death this week of the last one, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, brings to an end an important chapter in American politics.
For it was Senate veterans of World War II who expanded civil rights to minorities and to the disabled; steered the country through the Cold War; plunged it into Vietnam and then fought to extract it from Southeast Asia; created the Superfund and seven Cabinet positions; expanded government in the Great Society and then restricted the reach of Washington in the Reagan years; provided generous welfare benefits and then curtailed them; and confirmed two vice presidents and exonerated one president who had been impeached.
Tom Brokaw’s description of the Americans who fought World War II as the Greatest Generation is now commonplace. The senators who fought in World War II may not be the greatest generation of lawmakers; they have to compete, after all, with the senators of the early national period, who established the governing form of the new nation, and with those of the antebellum period of the 19th century, who struggled over slavery, expansion and early industrialization. But these senators gave shape to the nation we inhabit today, expanding rights and freedom and presiding over the coda to their war, the struggle against communism and tyranny.
These World War II veterans in the Senate include such figures as Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, who served as Republican majority leader and then White House chief of staff; Lloyd M. Bentsen of Texas, who defeated George H.W. Bush for a Senate seat, ran against Bush’s 1988 national ticket as the Democratic vice presidential nominee and then served as Treasury secretary; Bob Dole, who was majority leader and a GOP presidential nominee; Barry Goldwater, a conservative icon as the 1964 Republican presidential nominee and then a bipartisan hero when he returned to the Senate; and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Joseph S. Clark Jr. of Pennsylvania and John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, who brought uncommon civility and intellectual distinction to the chamber.
Their war experiences deeply affected their political perspectives. Two Republicans, John Chafee of Rhode Island and John Warner of Virginia, both Marines, served as secretary of the Navy. George S. McGovern of South Dakota was a decorated B-24 Liberator pilot in World War II, and as Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 became the decade’s most outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.
Two of them, Goldwater and John H. Glenn Jr. of Ohio, were defined by their experiences as test pilots, with Glenn eventually becoming an astronaut and taking two flights into space. Three of them — Dole, Daniel H. Inouye of Hawaii and Philip A. Hart of Michigan — suffered grievous war injuries and recovered on the same floor of the same military hospital in Michigan. All were outspoken, eloquent advocates for the rights of injured veterans.
Both presidential nominees in the elections of 1960, 1964 and 1972 were veterans of both the Senate and World War II. Veterans of the war, though not necessarily of the Senate, were nominees in 12 elections in a row (1952 to 1996), a remarkable record of one generation’s political dominance. That dominance can be extended to 13 consecutive elections if Strom Thurmond, an Army veteran who ran on the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, is included.
These men — there were no women — were marked by the consequences of appeasement at Munich in 1938, leading many of them to later oppose communist aggression in Vietnam and prompting one of them (Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin) to lend his name to an odious paranoid impulse in American civic life while fighting communism at home.
These men lived in a segregated society, leading some of them (Thurmond and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia, among others) to fight the expansion of rights for blacks, and leading others (Ralph Yarborough of Texas and Jacob K. Javits of New York, for instance) to fight segregation and support voting rights.
They came of age in an era when a minority of Americans went to college and came to support a massive expansion of aid to higher education. They left their wives and girlfriends at home during the war (and often during their time in the Senate), and they worked in a Senate that more than four decades ago passed the Equal Rights Amendment by an 84-8 vote. (It fell just short of ratification by the states.)
They went to war in an age of conformity, but many of them symbolized non-conformity in Washington. Two Republicans especially personified that impulse: Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon was a Navy veteran and a pacifist. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland split with party leaders and became an important voice for environmentalism and civil rights.
Patterns of cooperation and admiration went across party lines. One Democratic veteran of the Senate, the young John F. Kennedy, always cited a Republican elder, John Sherman Cooper, as his model for the ideal senator. A conservative World War II veteran from Kansas, Bob Dole, teamed with a liberal war veteran from South Dakota, George McGovern, to expand the food stamp program.
When the quintessential baby boomer president, Bill Clinton, found himself in trouble and on trial in the Senate after being impeached in the House, he turned to the quintessential World War II veteran (Dale Bumpers, Marines, 1943-1946) to defend him with passion and power on the floor of the chamber.
These lawmakers were shrewd (Russell B. Long of Louisiana), florid (Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee), earthy (John Melcher of Montana). They were crafty (Jesse Helms of North Carolina), homespun (Howell Heflin of Alabama) and iconoclastic (Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina). They were wily (William Proxmire of Wisconsin), witty (William F. Knowland of California) and wise (Harold Hughes of Iowa).
As young men they saved the world. As older men they shaped our world. This week let us mark their passing, let us hail them, and let us thank them.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.