George Herbert Walker Bush was the last living GOP president whose service predated the shift in party focus from the middle class to the rural poor. To the end of his life, he presented an image of integrity, honesty and kindness.
I was in the Navy during Desert Shield/Desert Storm; President Bush defined, in my mind, the term, “my President.” He was my president, and I was happy to ride into battle on the horse he chose for me. I didn’t always agree with his policies, but I always trusted his judgement.
He wasn’t quite the last of his kind, but there are precious few left.
Senator Bob Dole may well be the next to go. At 95, Dole is wheelchair bound and mostly skin and bones. His sunken eyes can no longer generate tears, but if you watched the video of Dole saluting President Bush as he lie in state, you know that they are still able to convey emotion.
As he sat back in his wheelchair, exhausted by the simple effort of propping himself against an aide and straining to give President Bush a left-handed salute, Dole’s sunken eyes glowed as he thought about their long lives of service to the flag draped over his old friend’s coffin.
What lives they led.
Each began his service to the country as a teenager, enlisting for World War II. Dole joined the Army as an enlisted man in 1942, becoming an officer in 1945. Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday in 1942, took pilot training and was commissioned just before his 19th birthday in June of 1943.
Bush survived the loss of his plane during a bombing mission by flying the flaming plane out to sea and bailing out, eventually getting rescued by a submarine. Pilots who were captured during that mission were executed by the Japanese; had he bailed out when the plane caught fire, Bush would have been one of them.
Dole was hit in the back and upper right arm by German machine gun fire in the mountains near Bologna, Italy in April 1945. He was so badly wounded that his fellow soldiers were powerless to do anything for him. They simply pumped him full of morphine and painted an “M” on his forehead in his own blood, so the medic wouldn’t double-dose him if he lived to see one. He survived (of course), but his right arm was rendered virtually worthless.
Both men served the nation in a variety of roles, Dole primarily as a lawmaker and Bush primarily as an administrator. Dole, long known as a dour, humorless man, built a second career poking fun at himself and touring the nation’s media as a political pundit after losing the 1996 Presidential race. Bush built a family dynasty, of course, and wore just about every hat in the executive branch of the government.
Both men had personalities that suited their generation. Both were strong, stoic leaders during their public service, and both remained heavily involved in civic and charitable projects after they retired from the Beltway.
With the passing of Bush, Dole may be the last Don of the political Greatest Generation. I don’t necessarily buy into the idea that the WWII generation was uniquely great, but they did the deeds. They deserve the applause. We would be lucky to have one of them running things now, or at least keeping the GOP’s current leadership honest.
Rest in peace, Mr. President. My president.