Americans have witnessed the passing of two particularly significant leaders during the final months of this year. Former Sen. Bob Dole died this month, and retired general and former secretary of state Colin Powell in late October.
Both personified commitment to public service, effective leadership and tenacious determination to overcome significant barriers. Each man demonstrated willingness to operate in pragmatic fashion to achieve results.
Each experienced harsh political setbacks. The electorate rejected as well as rewarded the senator. Administration colleagues, operating more privately, undercut the dedicated military officer.
Together, these two outstanding men provide fascinating similarities and contrasts. Both served with dedication in the military.
Each served in a combat theater. Each overcame wounds and carried on, to achieve impressive success.
As a child in Kansas farm country, young Robert Dole experienced firsthand the physical as well as economic devastation of the Great Depression. Dust storms in the 1930s destroyed crops, punishing families already injured by the nationwide — and global — economic collapse that began in 1929.
The Dole family moved into the basement of their home. They rented out the residential portion upstairs to provide essential income.
A gifted athlete, young Bob Dole lettered in basketball, football and track in high school in his hometown of Russell, Kansas. He hoped to become a surgeon.
World War II intervened.
Dole became an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, where he volunteered for the legendary 10th Mountain Division. In 1943 during combat in Italy, he exposed himself to German fire while aiding a wounded comrade and was himself hit.
Dole the exceptional athlete, also voted best looking by his high school class, came home from war largely paralyzed, encased in a body cast. He spent more than three years in the hospital, much of that time in surgery, struggling to recover from devastating wounds.
Dole entered the U.S. Senate in 1969. He served for nearly three decades, evolving from a conservative to a respected pragmatist who got things done.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford selected Dole as his running mate. Dole’s abrasive style contributed to the defeat of the ticket by Democratic nominees Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.
Dole later quipped, “I went for the jugular — my own.” In 1996, after two earlier failures, he achieved the Republican nomination for president. Bill Clinton won the election.
For Colin Powell, the U.S. Army was the vehicle to the top. He rose from tactical combat unit leader in Vietnam, where he was wounded during two tours, to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Along the way, he was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. Powell is the first African American to hold these jobs, and others.
He spent four unhappy years as Secretary of State during President George W. Bush’s first term. Increasing policy disagreements with Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld led to isolation and eventual departure.
After retiring from government service, Powell devoted himself to writing his serious, informative memoirs. He directed great effort to launching America’s Promise, a youth service organization.
In the 1990s, a strong grassroots movement developed, promoting Powell for president. This writer became involved to a degree. A comprehensive range of people and occupations participated in this very genuine, authentic populist movement. Ultimately, for family reasons, he declined to pursue that course.
Dole and Powell both overcame significant barriers, economic and social, to serve at the top of our government. Salute them.
Learn More: Colin Powell, “My American Journey”
Arthur I. Cyr, the Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College, is author of “After the Cold War” (NYU and Palgrave/Macmillan).