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. Three are pictured on postage stamps.
They are among the 115 senators who served in World War II. The death last week of the last one, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, brings to an end an important chapter in American politics.
Senate veterans of World War II 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, expanded government in the Great Society and then restricted its reach in the Ronald Reagan years, and provided generous welfare benefits and then curtailed them.
Tom Brokaw’s description of the Americans who fought World War II as the Greatest Generation is now a commonplace. The senators who fought in World War II may not be the greatest generation of lawmakers, but they gave shape to the nation we inhabit today.
These World War II veterans in the Senate include such figures as Howard Baker, Jr., of Tennessee, who served as Republican majority leader and then White House chief of staff; Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, who defeated George H.W. Bush for a Senate seat, ran against Mr. Bush’s 1988 national ticket as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, and then served as Treasury secretary; Robert 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.
Their war experiences affected their political perspectives. Two of them, Mr. Goldwater and John Glenn of Ohio, were defined by their experiences as test pilots. Mr. Glenn became an astronaut and took two flights into space.
Three of them — Mr. Dole, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and Philip Hart of Michigan — suffered 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.
These men — there were no women — were marked by the consequences of appeasement at Munich in 1938, leading many of them to oppose Communist aggression in Vietnam and prompting one of them (Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin) to lend his name to a paranoid impulse in American civic life while fighting communism at home.
These men lived in a segregated society, leading some of them (Strom Thurmond and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, among others) to fight the expansion of rights for blacks and leading others (Ralph Yarborough of Texas and Jacob 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 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.)
As young men, they saved the world. As older men, they shaped our world. Let us mark their passing, let us hail them, and let us thank them.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org
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