AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It was 73 years ago this week that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war.
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PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.
CORNISH: In the chamber that day was a 15-year-old U.S. House page, John Dingell Jr. Dingell eventually enlisted and would later win election to Congress himself, making him one of the hundreds of World War II veterans to serve in the House and Senate over a span of seven decades. But that era is now coming to a close as Dingell and Texas representative Ralph Hall prepare to leave office. They are the last of the World War II vets in Congress. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was 1944. The war wasn't even over yet when a Navy intelligence officer named George Andrews ran for Congress. It was an unusual campaign. The election was in Alabama but Andrews couldn't get there because he was on active duty at Pearl Harbor. And there was this, according to Matt Wasniewski, the official historian of the U.S. House.
MATT WASNIEWSKI: And the Navy wouldn't let him take political positions on any issues.
GONYEA: So his wife campaigned back home on Andrew's behalf.
WASNIEWSKI: And he wins the special election in March of '44, and he comes into the House.
GONYEA: So he's really at the front end of that wave for the next 70 years. Two years later when the war was over, the first big influx of World War II veterans came to Congress. The class of 1946 included some 70 members who'd served in the war. Among them, John F. Kennedy whose exploits as the commander of a torpedo boat in the Pacific were already well-known to the public. It's a tale that would, years later, get blockbuster Hollywood treatment in a film starring Cliff Robertson.
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CLIFF ROBERTSON: It's a whopping adventure story of courage. The young man I play is a fellow from Boston. His name - Lieutenant John F. Kennedy. His boat - PT 109.
GONYEA: Other veterans elected in '46 included some of the biggest names in 20th century American politics - Richard Nixon, future House Speaker Carl Albert. In 1948, Gerald R. Ford, another future president, entered the Congress. The wave of veterans kept growing. By the 1970s, nearly 4 of 5 members of Congress were veterans, the majority from World War II. Today? Only 1 in 5 are veterans. House historian Wasniewski says the shared experience of World War II brought something else.
WASNIEWSKI: That war service had, I think, a very real kind of moderating influence on their politics. The House has always been a partisan place. From the beginning, it's been partisan. And that period from the late 1940s into the early 1970s when the World War II group hits its peak is in a lot of ways the exception to the rule in terms of bipartisanship.
GONYEA: Michigan Democrat John Dingell enlisted in 1944. He's 88 now. You can hear his age in his voice. He describes himself as a former buck private who has no heroic war stories.
CONGRESSMAN JOHN DINGELL: I never had any particularly romantic or exciting assignments.
GONYEA: Dingell speaks of the success of the G.I. Bill, which paved the way for millions of veterans to go to college or get a mortgage or a loan to start a business.
DINGELL: Truman thought it was a great thing. Republicans thought it was a great thing. The Democrats thought it was a great thing.
GONYEA: Both Dingell and Texas Congressman Ralph Hall, who is 91 years old, went to college on the G.I. Bill. Dingell decided not to run for reelection this year. Hall, a former Navy pilot, ran and lost in the Republican primary this past spring. They are old friends. They are the last of the hundreds of World War II veterans to serve in Congress. They are, as Dingell has described himself and Hall, the last leaves on the tree. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
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