WASHINGTON -- This year's observation of Memorial Day brought out the usual heartfelt remembrances of the nation's military men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. At the same time, it spotlighted those, now elderly, who fought and have survived.
Thousands of them flocked to the World War II Memorial, honoring members of "the greatest generation" who saved the world from fascism in the European and the Pacific theaters. Many came via a program called the Honor Flight Network that annually rounds up these veterans and brings them to the site on the Washington Mall.
Bob Dole, severely wounded and decorated for valor in Italy, who rose to become Senate Majority Leader and the Republican presidential nominee in 1996. Now approaching 90, he surfaced on television and in print over the holiday weekend as a reminder of the personal grit and determination that overcame his physical disability and achieved political success.
In an interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, Dole reflected on his World War II service and thereafter, citing how his three-year hospitalization conditioned him to hardship and the imperatives of perseverance and compromise, lessons later applied as the Senate leader.
"I think I learned a lot about patience, he said, "Some things take a long time and you've got to be patient. And I like to get things done yesterday. But I learned in the hospital it's not possible. ... I've gone through the bitter stage where you kind of feel sorry for yourself. But then you look around and somebody who's in real trouble, and it changes your perspective about who's disabled and who's not."
Asked how he'd like to be remembered when he's gone, what he'd like to have on his tombstone, Dole replied: "Veteran. Who gave his most for his country." Then he added: "I tried to make the most of it. And I did."
In so saying, Dole referred not only to his military service but also his subsequent life in politics. In an opinion article in The Washington Post on Memorial Day, he applauded the charitable support in his hometown of Russell, Kan., that helped his own recovery, and lauded other admirable veteran benefits organizations.
At the same time, in keeping with his characteristic bluntness, Dole sharply chastised certain groups that raise millions allegedly for needy veterans but pocket most of the take. One such, he said, "is reported to have bilked unsuspecting donors of more than $100 million." He encouraged givers: "Don't hesitate to kick the tires or demand the equivalent of a test drive" on the validity of the so-called charity.
While he was at it, Dole conveyed some tough love toward his Republican Party. Asked what he thought of it today, he cracked: "I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says 'Closed for Repairs Until New Year's Day' next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas."
Could he make it himself these days in the party? "I doubt it." he said. Implying that the GOP had become too conservative even for him and barren of ideas, Dole added: "Reagan wouldn't have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn't have made it, because he had ideas."
Not that Dole was getting soft on the latter. Asked to give a thumbnail sketch of Nixon, he snapped: "Brilliant. Criminal. He could have been a great president. He just threw it away." As for President Obama, Dole switched to his light rinse. "He's a great golfer," he said. He added, though, that he was "very articulate" but "lacks communication skills" with both parties, and "spends too much time on the road."
In all, it was much mellower Dole than the man who, as the 1976 Republican vice presidential nominee, charged in debate with Democrat Walter Mondale that World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts were "all Democrat wars" in which 1.6 million Americans were killed.
In the intervening 37 years, the old soldier has honed down his tongue, once sharper than a serpent's tooth, to a mild but still humorous edge. By his steadfastness to country and party, Bob Dole can rightly be known as American's Veteran.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)