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 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.)
They went to war in an age of conformity, but many of them symbolized non-conformity in Washington. Two Republicans especially personified that impulse: Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon was a Navy veteran and a pacifist. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland split with party leaders and became an important voice for environmentalism and civil rights.
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. A conservative World War II veteran from Kansas, Bob Dole, teamed with a liberal war veteran from South Dakota, George McGovern, to expand the food stamp program.
When the quintessential baby boomer president, Bill Clinton, found himself in trouble and on trial in the Senate after being impeached in the House, he turned to the quintessential World War II veteran (Dale Bumpers, Marines, 1943-1946) to defend him with passion and power on the floor of the chamber.
These lawmakers were shrewd (Russell B. Long of Louisiana), florid (Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee), earthy (John Melcher of Montana). They were crafty (Jesse Helms of North Carolina), homespun (Howell Heflin of Alabama) and iconoclastic (Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina). They were wily (William Proxmire of Wisconsin), witty (William F. Knowland of California) and wise (Harold Hughes of Iowa).
As young men they saved the world. As older men they shaped our world. This week let us mark their passing, let us hail them, and let us thank them.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.