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
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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.

Senate Veterans in Decline National Journal

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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