Bob Dole did everything that he could to get his ninety-five-year-old war-ravaged body once again to the U.S. Capitol, this time to pay a final tribute to his friend and rival, George H.W. Bush. There once was a moment of testiness, in 1988 when both were running for the presidency at Dole said words to the effect that “I wish that he would stop being so mean.” What Dole really meant was that he wished that HW had not hired the likes of Roger Aisles and Lee Atwater to run his opponents into the gutter.
Bush won the presidency and Dole was Senate Minority Leader for those four years. Dole recently reflected upon those years, saying in an interview with CNN, saying that under Bush’s presidency, “three-fourths of Congress were veterans and we would stick together and work across the aisle. And President Bush was a bipartisan president. So, we got quite a lot done,” he said.
It is interesting how thirty years later in 2018, both parties tout how many veterans they have brought into their ranks and who have been elected to Congress. But to characterize today’s Congress as being bi-partisan would be false, even farcical.
Bush and Dole fought in World War II. They were in different theaters; Bush in the Pacific and Dole in Italy. But they had a common goal; to help the United States defeat fascism. Their purpose and the tenacity of their commitment ultimately resulted in victory for the United States, first in Europe in May 1945 and three months later against Japan. This was the group that became known as “The Greatest Generation” and truly had much of which to be proud. For the moment, we’ll overlook their omissions in areas of civil rights, poverty, and health care, but their signature achievement was far greater than that of any generation since. They had a bond without a swagger. There was a high degree of mutual respect, and that carried over into the U.S. Congress where Democrats and Republicans alike were able to work collaboratively, not always, but when necessary. That is a far cry from today.
The sense of pride in achievement that the likes of H.W. Bush and Dole had is missing among the men and women currently in Congress who have served in the military. Beginning with Vietnam, the United States has not had a war in which it can claim “victory” since World War II (with the possible exception of H.W.’s Desert Storm efforts in the Persian Gulf). Nothing could symbolize this difference than the varying military careers of H.W. and his son W. H.W. flew over fifty missions in the Pacific and did far more than his part in the U.S. effort in the Pacific. His son, W., was in the National Guard, but weaseled out of going to Vietnam or in any way placing himself in harm’s way. Current members of Congress who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly put themselves at risk, but they lack the sense of bond that comes from shared victory or purpose. This may well play a key role in the lack of unity in both the current Congress and the body politic at large.
A possible solution might be a new war similar in nature to World War II. But we all know that is not only impossible, it is absurd to make war the basis for building national unity. However, there are at least two things that we can do to try to restore the civility of the era of H.W. and Bob Dole:
First, let’s not get in any wars that are fruitless and not winnable (see Just War Theory). Second, let’s find a non-combative way of rebuilding national unity. How about something that should be as a-political as possible – rebuilding and refashioning our infrastructure. Not too long after World War II, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated with Congress the Interstate Highway System. Now we need something more diverse and comprehensive and forward-looking in nature. In the spirit of H.W. and Bob Dole, Congress could do the initial planning now, and in the post-Trumpian era, it could be implemented. Not a bad way to learn lessons from H.W. and Bob Dole, and to move on.