A veteran of both the Army and the Congress says the common bond of military service can help otherwise dissimilar politicians keep the peace later in public life.
Former senator John Melcher (D-Mont.) discussed his World War II service and its impact on his political career Wednesday in an event hosted by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
Melcher, an Army private from 1943 to 1945 and a senator from 1977 to 1989, said senators as politically diverse as George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) and Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) found ways to work together despite their differences, in part because both served in the military. (McGovern was a bomber pilot and Dole an Army platoon leader in World War II.)
Melcher, who was shot in the knee in Germany in 1945, recalled attending a veterans reception in 1979 with 18 other senators of various political leanings, all of whom had earned Purple Hearts for being wounded in combat.
"I think it did have a lot to do at that time with what we call comity in the Senate," the 79-year-old told the audience of 30 people at the Veterans of Foreign Wars office on Capitol Hill. "I suppose it's dwindled way down now. Only a small percentage of the Senate would be veterans of any war, and not as many would be Purple Heart veterans. So I think it was an advantage to me and the rest of us in that era."
Such memories provide a contrast to the current era, when members of the House and Senate routinely engage in bitter partisan fights. Relations in the House had deteriorated so much last year that a Republican committee chairman tried to get the Capitol Police to evict Democratic members from a congressional library during a disagreement over pension legislation. (The chairman later apologized.)
The number of veterans serving in Congress is indeed on the decline. There are 154 veterans among today's legislators, 119 in the House and 35 in the Senate, according to the Congressional Research Service. Two years ago there were 168 veterans overall, and four years ago there were 177.
As recently as 1987, veterans accounted for 71 members of the Senate, a high not reached since 1970, said Donald A. Ritchie, an associate historian in the Senate historical office. Senators as politically different as the communist-baiting Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) and eventual majority leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) attended breakfasts and other gatherings together because both were Marines Corps veterans.
"That was a big part of the collegiality here," Ritchie said.
A few such bonds survive. Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), both Vietnam War veterans, maintain a close friendship even as Kerry pursues the presidency and McCain campaigns for President Bush. McCain has even called on Bush to condemn ads by outside groups questioning Kerry's record as a Navy officer in Vietnam.
Wartime service is an issue in the presidential campaign. Kerry supporters have contrasted the Democrat's combat record with Bush's stateside stint in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Bush backers point to the president's leadership in fighting terrorism.
Melcher, a veterinarian and lobbyist, said wartime service is not always a plus. As a House member in the late 1960s, for instance, it took him and many other World War II veterans a long time to realize that Vietnam "was a dumb war, that we made a mistake and that we should get out of it," he said.
In general, though, when it comes to putting troops in harm's way, the politician who has been shot at on the battlefield has a perspective that others do not, he said.
"You feel more responsible for committing anybody, setting the stage for anybody to actually be in warfare," Melcher said. "It changes you. It can't help but change you."