It’s not whom you know that counts; it’s whom you’re thrust beside.
The Class of 1915 at West Point included Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, two others who became four-star generals, seven who won three stars and 48 who attained the rank of general.
On the same Silver Lake football team at a small regional high school in Massachusetts in the 1970s were Tim Murphy, now the head football coach at Harvard, Buddy Teevens, now the head coach at Dartmouth, and Jeff Hawkins, the director of football operations at Oregon.
Perhaps the all-time champion center of serendipity was an old Battle Creek, Mich., sanitarium presided over by members of the Kellogg family before being converted during World War II into the Percy Jones Army Hospital. That’s when the hospital, which had once treated Mary Todd Lincoln and Sojourner Truth and went on to be ridiculed in a T. Coraghessan Boyle novel, became the home of three remarkable Army men who had suffered grievous war wounds.
On just one floor of a hospital so big it once had 800 employees were Robert Joseph Dole of Russell, Kan., who had been shattered on a hill in Italy in the last month of the war and reckoned by almost everyone who saw him as destined for an early, swift and merciful death; Philip Aloysius Hart of Bryn Mawr, Pa., his arm seeded with shrapnel from an artillery shell on Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion; and Daniel Ken Inouye of Honolulu, shot in the stomach and hit by an exploding grenade in Italy.
They had nothing in common except for their valor and suffering — and their injuries, especially to their arms. Inouye would lose his. Hart’s would always bother him. Dole’s would be withered and weak for all of his days. But it isn’t the injuries that tied them together — that is why this is a story worth telling now — but the way they recovered, each in his own way, each at his own speed (Hart would later fight in the Battle of the Bulge), each with an eye to be defined not by what he had lost but by what he could gain.
In time Dole would become Senate majority leader, Republican vice presidential nominee and GOP presidential nominee; Hart would become perhaps the most liberal member of the Senate and so respected that a sparkling new office building would bear his name; and Inouye would become a giant of the chamber, revered for his iron-strong integrity and remembered for his roles in the two signature scandals of the second half of the 20th century, Watergate and Iran-Contra.
For Inouye, there was all that plus the most thankless job in the Capitol, serving as defense counsel for disgraced Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey in the 1981 Senate Abscam trial because no one else would take the assignment. “Danny accepted it and made a presentation on the floor that was one of the best examples of advocacy I’ve ever seen,” said former GOP Sen. William Cohen of Maine.
Inouye’s death during a week of fraught budget negotiations underlines the changes in American politics since the time when he served with Dole, who left the chamber in 1996, and with Hart, who died in 1976. Indeed, at last month’s memorial for another of their tribe, GOP Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, Inouye and former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee talked about how the old Senate differed from the new.
“Danny always tried to work with others,” former Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, now married to Mr. Baker, remembered in a telephone call. “Both Howard and I and Danny himself said we need to return to a different time, when we were willing to work across the aisle, not just willing to draw lines in the sand.”
The relationship tying Dole, 89, to Inouye, who was 88, spanned two-thirds of a century, nearly a third of the entire history of the United States.
It was in April 1945, Mr. Dole remembered last week, that he and Mr. Inouye “became members of the ’disabled community.’” He said that with the sort of laugh hard to summon years ago, when Inouye introduced him to bridge and beat him repeatedly at it. They were injured within days and miles of each other. Both had many miles to go.
“Danny paid the price and went through a lot,” he said in the clipped style of the Dole vernacular — no verbal ornaments, no flights of rhetorical excess, an art form learned on the Kansas plains and honed in a hospital ward, where Inouye once said that he never saw Dole actually stand, and that it was possible to look into the man’s eyes and see hurt and pain — but also steely determination.
Inouye once told me: “I have seen him smile though he was in intense pain.”
In later years Dole, who could not cut his own steak but would buy a 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity with crank windows, would express boundless admiration for Inouye. “Danny was exemplary,” Mr. Dole said. “He took it on the chin. He never looked back. He was very courageous.” In the Dole repertoire — deep feeling, few syllables — those last three sentences constitute a virtual aria.
These two men were tied by so much more than party and profession.
“Both were of a nature not to make a big point of their troubles, but each had an enormous amount of respect and care for the other,” said Ms. Kassebaum Baker. “Danny probably more than Bob was open about all of this. Bob has always been very stoic. There are some things he cares the most about that he’d probably never talk about. This is one of them. He and Danny understood something together.”
There was one other understanding, rooted in Battle Creek. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine remembers talking with Inouye at the Rudman memorial and hearing an unforgettable story — of how the bedridden Dole told Inouye he was going to return to Kansas, go into politics and somehow get to Congress. Inouye beat him there: He became Hawaii’s first House member 15 months before Dole was elected.
“I called him up,” Mitchell remembers Inouye saying, “and told him, ’I’m here — where are you?’”
Mr. Dole would be there soon enough.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.