The loss of Bob Dole and others like him has left a hole in American politics, and the loss of his generation has left a bigger hole in American life.
Dole died at age 98 Dec. 5 after suffering from stage 4 lung cancer.
Surviving the Dust Bowl in Russell, Kan., was just the first of the challenges he overcame. He was badly wounded in Italy in World War II and never regained full use of his right hand, but it didn’t stop him from becoming one of the Senate’s most powerful leaders.
Dole became the Republican Party’s vice presidential nominee in 1976 and then ran for president three times, finally capturing the nomination in 1996 when he lost to President Bill Clinton. Afterward, his sense of humor and willingness to poke fun at himself endeared him to the American people.
Dole was the last of his generation to win a major party presidential nomination. He was Republican but not particularly ideological, and he was a dealmaker when bipartisan dealmaking was still a thing. He and others of that era were Republicans and Democrats second partly because they had been brothers in arms first. They weren’t so interested in fighting a culture war against each other because they had already fought a real war side by side.
This past week also was the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, which means the few remaining survivors are nearing or have reached age 100.
Whether or not Tom Brokaw got it right when he called it the “Greatest Generation,” it definitely was a remarkable one. Its members overcame the Great Depression, won World War II and liberated the death camps. Then they returned home to raise children and build a country. They became pretty good grandparents, too.
Only a handful ever ran for president, of course. The rest were like George and Dorothy Brawner, who lived just outside Colt between Forrest City and Wynne. Papaw served in the Navy in the Pacific, and then he and Granny raised my dad and his siblings. Together, my grandparents led hardworking, simple, virtuous lives.
Wallace Eldridge of Wynne was another member of that generation. He landed in France soon after the D-Day invasion and did his part to help liberate the continent. Afterward, he built a business along with a backyard tennis court, where we became friends despite our 44-year age difference.
About 20 years ago, my wife and I wrote a number of book-length biographies on commission. Some of them were about World War II veterans, and it was one of the honors of my life.
Ed Penick flew combat missions in China and then came home to Little Rock to serve as president of Worthen Bank. He and his wife, Evelyn, were almost Arkansas royalty, but they were humble and real.
Cletis Overton of Malvern survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and then years of brutal captivity at the hands of the Japanese army. He escaped when an American torpedo unknowingly sank the ship carrying him and hundreds of other prisoners. At first I was intimidated by his gruff exterior, but I soon learned what gentle, kind people he and his wife Maxine were.
Bill Ferrell of Little Rock had been a B-17 pilot and didn’t like talking about the war, but he and his British-born wife, Olive, always welcomed us into their home.
These members of the “Greatest Generation” are all gone. And they’ve been replaced with … well, they’ve been replaced with us.
At the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” the dying captain played by Tom Hanks has four last words: “Earn this. Earn it.”
He was talking to the young soldier he had saved. The not-so-hidden point of the movie is that we’re all Private Ryan, and it’s our duty to live worthy of the sacrifices others made for us.
Have we? The week that saw the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the death of Bob Dole is as good a time as any to ask.