Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review: One Soldier's Story

A Fair Trade Book (hurrah!)

(In real life, the cover photo is much clearer. What Amazon had, at the time of posting, was a thumbnail-size photo, which has been blown up to this web site's standard size for Amazon link images.)

Title: One Soldier’s Story

Author: Bob Dole

Date: 2005 (hardcover), 2006 (paperback)

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 0-06-076342-6 (paperback)

Length: 287 pages

Illustrations: black-and-white photos

Quote: “June 6. Dear Folks: today was the day everyone has been waiting for—invasion day.”

And the rest is, well, history. Everyone who did or did not vote for Senator Dole during his vice-presidential campaign in 1976 or his presidential campaign in 1996 may not have known what the Senator stood for politically—many apparently didn’t—but everyone knew what he stood for as an individual. He was the theoretically disabled veteran who’d beaten the odds just by being able to walk and talk. The stiff, grim old face and the pen he almost always held in one hand were to remind people of that. (Clutching a pen created time for people to be reminded not to expect much in the way of handshaking from the Senator, whose use of his hand was still limited.) At the age of eighty-two, after writing many other things (Great Political Wit is actually a fun read), he finally wrote the Official Memoir, which begins with a tribute to the newly disabled young veterans of the new war. Any American who was near a bookstore and had some money bought this book, as a new book, to show respect.

So…if you were not near a bookstore, had no money, weren’t American, or perhaps were too young to read books this size, in 2006, here is the story of how one particular soldier grew up about as close to the American Center as it’s possible to get, almost died, survived, and became successful as an author and politician just by staying alive. The story of how, over time, he came to be seen as an emblem of the American Right is material for another book.

Christian? Well, yes, in a formal way…but Bob Dole was by nature an extrovert, only somewhat subdued by his life experience. As a full-grown man he “never walked alone,” but somehow the choice of a vague, New Agey pop song about a spirituality of “hope in your heart” seemed more of a suitable theme song than gospel songs like “I Need Thee Every Hour” or “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Wholesome Christian family values had no political identity when they were being drummed into the boy Bob, he tells us. “Dad taught us kids that in life ‘there are doers and there are stewers.’ Dad was definitely a doer…He embodied…honor, honesty, personal responsibility, and a sense of duty more than he talked about them…he opened the grain elevator for business each morning at seven A.M.”  “Mom…talked fast, walked fast, and drove fast…always had more things to do than she had time for…Mom was always the first person to lend a helping hand.” “[M]ore often than not Mom and Dad worked on Sunday mornings. This didn’t prevent their sending us kids to Trinity United Methodist Church.” Nevertheless, the bright-eyed farm boy Bob, who “didn’t always remain on that straight-and-narrow path,” later remembered more about ice cream parties, movies, a first job at a soda fountain, playing sports, and dating than about praying. A sort of half-conscious “foundation of faith in God” is probably as much of a spiritual life as extroverts who don’t become active preachers ever have.

A more surprising detail of Senator Dole’s early life is that, before his face became stiff and grim, he was considered attractive. “[P]opularity…was merely a by-productof my long-standing dream of becoming a great athlete. But…I was tall, had dark, wavy hair, and spoke politely…the members of the Russell High Girls Reserve voted me as their ‘Ideal Boy’. I once even ‘modeled’ some clothes.” Nobody called the Senator handsome during my lifetime; it’s pleasant to learn that once, long ago, he was.

No surprise to Senator Dole’s fans, although it may surprise readers of military memoirs from subsequent generations, is the fact that this war story is told without relying on “Army language.” 

But, politics? While he had the full, free use of both hands, he says, Bob Dole reckoned doctors were the “most successful and respected” kind of educated men, and the kind he wanted to become. Only as a disabled veteran was he steered into politics at all. At the time—1950—he chose the Republican Party because it was the majority party in his district, the one likely to get him into the state legislature. He would later live to see not only “honesty, personal responsibility, and a sense of duty” but disabled veterans themselves tagged as right-wing ideas the Far Left preferred to ignore. Democrats of his own vintage (and I knew some of them too) could relate to Senator Dole as easily as Republicans could.

President Reagan, that “conservative” icon, stated publicly that his political agenda was to restore the once “radical leftist” policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Senator Dole always had much in common with President Reagan, in that regard. Those who wanted to move ever further toward the left may have succeeded in calling him a right-winger, but his own political center simply stayed in what had been the center when he was growing up. That both (eventually) displayed truly heroic levels of quiet fortitude, also comparable with FDR’s, may have endeared them to the Far Right, and deserved to, but that should hardly have cost them any popularity with the Left. Relative to my own generation, Senator Dole and President Reagan could be considered “conservative” simply because they were older than some of our parents.

But they were…if not necessarily The Greatest generation, at least a generation we should probably have respected more than most of us did. There’s a lot to be said for the values that prompted Senator Dole to mention, several times in this book, that he was neither especially “spiritual” nor especially moral—but not to go into Confessional Mode and spew out the sordid details of every lustful thought or political compromise. Wiser than many of us are even now, people of Dole’s vintage knew that the worst things about their lives would be on the record, somewhere, for those who wanted to dig them out, and that the most charitable thing to do, with regard to other people whose own private lives weren’t over yet, was to skim lightly over the details.Here again, their model came from what used to be considered the Far Left; Franklin D. Roosevelt left behind a “time capsule” of confessions and incriminating documents for his heirs to decide how to handle fifty years after his death. The day appointed came, the time capsule was opened, and FDR’s heirs promptly burned its contents.

So this memoir is a light—the paperback copy is literally very light—feel-good story of a nice guy overcoming a physical disability. I think the physical lightness of this book may have been a strategic decision for the publisher. Not only did thin, newsprint-like paper save Harper Collins a few dollars; it also makes this book easy to hold up and read in bed, for those who are in bed,or to weight so it lies flat, for those who are sitting up but easily tired. It’s a good choice for reading during physical therapy.

For the very young…I’d say One Soldier’s Story is about as good a first book about mobility impairments and physical disabilities, for anyone reading above a fifth or sixth grade level, as the books about Glenn Cunningham that my generation wore out.

You can still buy new copies from the publisher, and you probably should, if you can afford to show that much respect...but used copies have been floating around for long enough that I'll offer this one as a Fair Trade Book on this web site's usual terms: $5 per copy + $5 per package, + $1 per online payment, from which we send $1 to Senator Dole or a charity of his choice.