The Lessons Veterans Teach
Published: February 23rd, 2017
By: Steven and Cokie Roberts

Bob Michel, who died last week at 93, was elected to Congress from his hometown of Peoria, Illinois in 1956 and served for 38 years. As a young infantryman he had landed at Normandy shortly after D-Day, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and earned two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

For 14 years, Michel served as the Republican leader of the House, and in awarding him the Medal of Freedom in 1994, President Bill Clinton said: "He would never give my party any quarter in a partisan fight (but he) would never put his party's political interest ahead of the national interest."

Sen. John McCain, now 80, was shot down flying a fighter over Vietnam in 1967 and spent six years in a prison camp. Just elected to his sixth term in November, McCain is a leading critic of his fellow Republican, President Trump.

McCain is particularly incensed at Trump's attacks on the media as "the enemy of the American people." As he said on NBC's "Meet the Press": "If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and, many times, adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started."

For Michel and McCain, their shaping years were spent as soldiers fighting for their country, not as politicians fighting for their party. They knew the real enemy was the guy shooting at you, not the one shouting at you. They've always been loyal Republicans, but they've always had a higher loyalty, as well: to the nation and to its most sacred values.

Trump talks about "America First," but what he often means is "Trump First." Nor does he understand that patriotism is much more than just a slogan -- that true devotion to country requires protecting such bedrock institutions as independent journalists and judges.

Story Continues Below Adverts

Washington is poorer today because so few lawmakers -- in both parties -- have worn a uniform and seen combat. The last two World War II veterans to serve in Congress, Reps. John Dingell of Michigan and Ralph Hall of Texas, departed Capitol Hill two years ago. It's no accident that crippling partisanship has increased as the influence of veterans has declined.

We both covered Congress during Michel's tenure as GOP leader, and few legislators could rival his reputation for honor, honesty and humility. A friend sent us a story from Roll Call, which imagined that if Michel had written his own epitaph, it might have read, "That Bob sure was one doggone decent son of a gun."

Cynics might sneer at such unsophisticated language, but we agree with our friend, who noted, "Spot on, methinks."

Under Michel's leadership, the GOP never won the majority, and he acquired influence by working closely with Democratic powers like Speaker Tip O'Neill and Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Republican insurgents led by Newt Gingrich derided his "defeatist" mentality, declared Holy War on the Democrats, and forced Michel into retirement. And in truth, Gingrich did lead the GOP to its first House majority in 40 years in 1994.

But something truly precious was lost in the process. Michel was right when he criticized Gingrich and company for "trashing the institution" and undermining the spirit of "camaraderie" that had once pervaded the House. The man who played golf with O'Neill, and regularly drove back to Illinois with Rostenkowski, knew that camaraderie was the essential lubricant that made legislative progress possible.

McCain understands the same concept, working regularly with Democrats on issues like campaign finance reform. He has also emerged as the Conscience of the Senate, an unofficial but invaluable title assumed over the years by lawmakers who defend first principles, regardless of the political consequences.

Another example: McCain keeps demanding that the Senate establish a bipartisan select committee to investigate Russian attempts to influence last November's election. Republican leader Mitch McConnell, backed by the Trump White House, keeps rejecting McCain's proposal, but the old aviator remains undaunted.

"The severity of this issue, the gravity of it, is so consequential because if you succeed in corrupting an election, then you've destroyed the foundation of democracy," he told Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine. "So I view it with the utmost seriousness."

Bob Michel, we feel confident, would agree with him. If you almost die for your country, you're much less likely to put political interest ahead of the nation's interest.

– By Steve and Cokie Roberts, NEA Columnists