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Old Soldiers Never Die

December 09, 2021

The adage of “Old soldiers never die—they just fade away” was coined in General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell address to Congress on April 19, 1951 after he had been removed from his command by President Harry Truman. He followed that speech with a whirlwind tour around the US which I witnessed in my Cub Scout uniform saluting appropriately as he whisked through the streets of Jackson, Mississippi.  In the late seventies, I was fortunate to represent Exxon in a Brookings Institute program in Washington D.C. where we met in small groups sitting with senior individuals throughout US Government.  The session we had with Bob Dole was memorable and a highlight of the week-long program.  On December 5, 2021, Katharine Q. Seelye published an article in the New York Times entitled Bob Dole, Old Soldier and Stalwart of the Senate Dies at 98.  

President Biden called his colleague from the past “An American statesman like few in our history. A war hero and among the greatest of the Greatest Generation.” He added, “To me, he was also a friend whom I could look to for trusted guidance, or a humorous line at just the right moment to settle frayed nerves.” Politically, Mr. Dole was a man for all seasons having navigated his way through decades in the upper echelons of the Republican party. His tenure as the Republican senator selected by his party to serve in both the Senate majority and minority for a combined 11 years speaks to his leadership. It was also his basic home turf where he was most comfortable. He cajoled his senator associates on the balcony off the Republican leader’s office with such frequency that it was named the Robert J. Dole balcony when he left the Senate in 1996. Moreover, the balcony exposure likely kept his ever-present tan in good form. 

The Kansas boy of ordinary means almost did not survive his military service during WWII. He enlisted in the Army Reserve during college and was called to active duty in 1943. He was severely wounded in the mountains of Italy when he pulled a fallen fellow soldier to safety but personally suffered severe wounds that required more than three years of recovery and seven operations. What a difficult beginning as an adult to spend that period in a military bed, as shown below, after having been left for dead on the field of battle. As his right hand was so severely damaged, he could not shake hands.  Therefore, he always had a pen clasped in his right hand, to preclude anyone’s attempt to shake hands with him. It made a vivid impression on me during my brief exposure to him at Brookings. Moreover, the fact that it took him an hour to get dressed and buttoned up for work demonstrated his remarkable stamina. 

Although Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush were not aligned on all their political issues, the sense of duty, integrity and responsibility of this iconic person was clearly demonstrated when he was assisted to salute the coffin of former President Bush as he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. 

Sadly, we have closed the chapter on the end of an era. The old soldiers of MacArthur, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, John McCain, Colin Powell, and Bob Dole have been replaced by politicians like the “Bone Spurs Cadet.” Military service is certainly not a requirement to develop leadership strengths. However, in the absence of that, it seems that we do need to have avenues to create decency, dignity, and care for fellow man to generate compassion and understanding in political “servants” so they serve and respect their constituents rather than their own self-interest.

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