Watching former Sen. Bob Dole be helped to his feet in order to render a salute to the casket of President George H.W. Bush was certainly one of the most powerful moments of the year. Not only for the honor of the gesture itself, but also because it is emblematic of our society as a whole.
Back in 1988, despite serving eight years as the Republican vice president, Bush found himself in a primary battle for the GOP presidential nomination. His foremost competitor was Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. Contested elections create for some heated moments. The Bush campaign ran ads to portray Dole as pro-tax hike, which led the senator to famously — on live TV — accuse the vice president of “lying” about his record.
Ultimately, Bush went on to win the nomination and take the torch from Ronald Reagan. He was the right man at the right time, ably confronting enormous change in the world, including the fall of the Soviet empire and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. He also kept up a friendship with Dole, despite the unsavory accusations of the campaign.
It almost certainly helped that both men were veterans of World War II. They had both seen combat and faced humanity at its worst. Bush’s aircraft was shot down and he was rescued by an American submarine, while Dole was grievously wounded assaulting a German machine gun emplacement. In a very real way, each helped justify the moniker given to their cohort by Tom Brokaw: the “Greatest Generation.”
The loss of leaders like them reflects a loss of our history and heritage. After World War II ended, America was ascendant. Our industrial might remained intact while the rest of the developed world laid in ruin. The returning soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines led to a baby boom, creating a massive workforce ready to build a new world.
And the “Greatest Generation,” with experience gained in the Pacific, North Africa, and Europe, understood we were all in this together. Bush exemplified it. “Read my lips; no new taxes” was one of his most well-known campaign promises. Yet, when a recession hit and it appeared the federal deficit would continue to balloon with increased spending and decrease tax collections, he cut a deal with Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley. Dole backed him, too.
This choice effectively ceded his chance at reelection. But he did it because it was the right thing to do. History seems to have proved it so, as many observers give Bush’s deal credit for the elimination of the budget deficit later in the 1990s. He planted the seed and fertilized it with the sacrifice of his own political career, bearing fruit for the nation during President Bill Clinton’s tenure.
Bush’s actions serve as a real life example of the advice offered by another American political and military leader lost this year: Sen. John McCain. In his farewell letter, McCain wrote:
“We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
Dole and Bush fought each other for the opportunity to serve in the highest office in the land. Yet, when the contest ended, there was no doubt each believed the other loved the country. They fought for it, they bled for it, and the served its high ideals.
Like standing and rendering one final salute to a commander in chief. America was great it that moment, as it always has been. And with hard work — as long as we keep making people like George H.W. Bush — it always will be.