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Honor World War II veterans
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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; Robert J. 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.
These men 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.)
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.
As young men they saved the world. As older men they shaped our world. Let us hail them, and let us thank them.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).