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Opinion

June 8, 2013

Shribman: As the World War II veterans 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; 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.

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