SENATE

Veterans No Longer Dominate American Politics

Sen. Daniel Inouye's casket lies in state in the rotunda of the Capitol as mourners pay their respects. 
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Dec. 19, 2012, 4:30 p.m.

When mem­bers of the House and Sen­ate file past the cas­ket of Daniel In­ouye as he lies in state in the Cap­it­ol Ro­tunda on Thursday, they will be mourn­ing more than the death of a dear friend and his­tor­ic col­league. They also will be griev­ing the passing of an era in which vet­er­ans of World War II dom­in­ated Amer­ic­an polit­ics.

In 1963, when In­ouye joined the Sen­ate, more than half of his col­leagues shared an im­port­ant bond with him: The dis­tin­guish­ing fact of their lives had been their ser­vice in that war. But, with In­ouye’s passing this week at age 88, that era quietly comes close to its fi­nal mo­ment. In­ouye’s death and the re­tire­ment of his Hawaii col­league, Sen. Daniel Akaka, means the Con­gress that takes of­fice in Janu­ary will have only three World War II vet­er­ans—one in the Sen­ate and two in the House.

The lone sur­viv­ors are Demo­crat­ic Sen. Frank Lauten­berg of New Jer­sey, who turns 89 next month; Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Ral­ph Hall, 89, of Texas; and 86-year-old Demo­crat­ic Rep. John Din­gell of Michigan. Lauten­berg served in the Army Sig­nal Corps from 1942 to 1946. Hall flew planes off air­craft car­ri­ers from 1942 to 1945. Din­gell joined the Army when he turned 18 in 1944 and was in the in­va­sion force poised to at­tack Ja­pan when the war ended.

It would be dif­fi­cult to over­state the in­flu­ence of World War II vet­er­ans on gov­ernance through most of In­ouye’s re­mark­able 53-year Cap­it­ol Hill ca­reer, dur­ing which Hawaii­ans elec­ted him twice to the House and nine times to the Sen­ate. Num­bers com­piled for Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily by the Na­tion­al World War II Mu­seum in New Or­leans show that 697 vet­er­ans of the war were elec­ted to Con­gress. Some, in­clud­ing In­ouye and former Sen. Bob Dole of Kan­sas, con­tin­ued to wield power even half a cen­tury after the end of the war. But, for most, their greatest dec­ades of in­flu­ence were the 1960s and 1970s.

The Sen­ate that In­ouye entered when he moved over from the House was very much a vet­er­ans’ cham­ber. He was but one of 69 vet­er­ans in that Sen­ate, ac­cord­ing to the Sen­ate His­tor­i­an’s Of­fice. A Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily ana­lys­is found that In­ouye served with 25 sen­at­ors who had fought dec­ades earli­er in World War I—and even with one, Ari­zona’s Carl Hay­den, whose ser­vice began eight years be­fore Amer­ica entered that war. An­oth­er 39, in­clud­ing In­ouye, had fought in World War II.

Ten years later, by 1972, the num­ber of World War I vet­er­ans in the Sen­ate had dropped to eight, while the ranks of World War II vets had grown to 55.

That war had an even stronger grip on Wash­ing­ton’s polit­ics than had the Civil War in the pre­vi­ous cen­tury. Every pres­id­en­tial elec­tion from 1952 to 1996 fea­tured a World War II vet­er­an head­ing one of the two tick­ets—from Dwight Eis­en­hower to Dole, over 12 elec­tions. Eight pres­id­ents, from Eis­en­hower to George H.W. Bush, were in uni­form dur­ing the war. (Jimmy Carter’s was that of a mid­ship­man at the Nav­al Academy.)

Few, of course, were as dec­or­ated for val­or or left as much on the bat­tle­field as In­ouye did. As a mem­ber of an Army re­gi­ment of Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­ans, he led a sin­gu­lar charge on three ma­chine-gun nests in Italy in 1945, was struck re­peatedly by en­emy bul­lets, and lost his right arm to a hand gren­ade. For his bravery, he was awar­ded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Cross, which was later up­graded to the Medal of Hon­or.

But In­ouye rarely talked about his war ser­vice or re­cord. In that, he was typ­ic­al of most of his fel­lows. Al­most to a man, they be­lieved that those days in com­bat put an em­phas­is on team­work, not the in­di­vidu­al. It was a philo­sophy that served Con­gress well for dec­ades, but one much less ap­par­ent on today’s Cap­it­ol Hill. With the pres­ence of vet­er­ans shrink­ing, even the highly re­spec­ted In­ouye, the second longest serving sen­at­or in his­tory, was in danger of be­ing viewed as an ana­chron­ism in an in­creas­ingly par­tis­an cham­ber.

The Sen­ate that opens next month will have the few­est vet­er­ans since the Sen­ate His­tor­i­an star­ted track­ing them in the 79th Con­gress, 1945-47. The num­ber of vet­er­ans in the body peaked at 81 in 1977 and nev­er fell be­low 50 un­til 1997. But as the vet­er­ans of World War II, Korea, and Vi­et­nam age and re­tire, the de­cline has been rap­id. The 113th Sen­ate will in­clude a re­cord-low 18 vet­er­ans.

Vet­er­ans’ shrink­ing in­flu­ence was also evid­ent in the 2012 pres­id­en­tial race. The Barack Obama-Joe Biden and Mitt Rom­ney-Paul Ry­an tick­ets in­cluded no vet­er­ans, the first time that has happened since 1932.

Crit­ics have also sug­ges­ted that the van­ish­ing num­ber of vet­er­ans in polit­ics has af­fected the way mem­bers ap­proach is­sues and their will­ing­ness to work with oth­ers. Cer­tainly, the mind-set is dif­fer­ent from that of earli­er gen­er­a­tions, in which mil­it­ary ser­vice was either ex­pec­ted or—be­cause of the draft—feared. No Amer­ic­an born after 1952 has ever been sub­ject to a mil­it­ary draft, and 30 of the 80 male mem­bers of the in­com­ing Sen­ate were born in 1953 or later. Com­bined with the 20 wo­men in the Sen­ate, that means fully half of the sen­at­ors nev­er had to worry about be­ing draf­ted and were nev­er ex­posed to the les­sons of mil­it­ary co­he­sion, team­work, and self­less­ness cham­pioned by In­ouye, Dole, and oth­er vets.

They are les­sons that might be re­called as In­ouye lies in the Ro­tunda on Thursday, rest­ing upon the cata­falque first con­struc­ted in 1865 for Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln. In­ouye is the 31st per­son to be gran­ted that hon­or, but only the sev­enth to be honored solely for his Sen­ate ser­vice. Pub­lic view­ing will be from noon to 8 p.m., with entry through the Cap­it­ol Vis­it­or Cen­ter.

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