'DON'T SPEND ANY TIME TRYING TO DETONATE JOHN CHAFEE'

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Whenever the elections come around, as they did again last week, and people are tempted to grow gloomy and cynical, embarrassed or depressed by what goes on down there in Washington and in politics generally, they might recall there also are politicians like John Chafee. It's what I do and always come away feeling somehow cheered and uplifted and proud of a system that can still produce such men.

His five children gave Chafee a little black-tie dinner party for his 75th birthday the other evening up in their home state of Rhode Island and I went across Saturday morning through scuds of rain on the ferry to New London and drove up 95 past the red and gold of southern New England's turning trees to Providence, excited about seeing Chafee again and pleased to have been asked.

He has been governor of his state, Secretary of the Navy, and for more than 20 years now a United States Senator. And in the single most Democratic state in the Union, he is a Republican. In 1990 he was third-ranking Republican in the Senate only to be, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, "driven from the post" by young Conservatives led by Phil Gramm. Chafee, they felt, was "too moderate," too supportive of Bob Dole, for whom the Journal said, Chafee played "both point man and conscience or 'kinder angel,' on health-care reform."

The right-wing attacks on Chafee by 1994 became so ferocious, both in the Senate and back home where he was running for re-election, that Senate Republican whip Alan Simpson defended the Rhode Islander: "You don't want to spend any time trying to detonate John Chafee. He has too many friends here." And a Democrat, Bob Kerrey, warned, "They'll have to put a new party together if Chafee is described as unprincipled."

And just who is Chafee?

He was something of a wrestling star at Yale when in his sophomore year Pearl Harbor was bombed and he dropped out to enlist in the Marine Corps as a boot. He fought on Guadalcanal as a rifleman, was then sent to OCS and commissioned, fought again as a second lieutenant on Okinawa, and finished up commanding troops in North China amid the bandits and the contending forces of Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek. Then, after four years, he returned as a sophomore to Yale and to the wrestling team, was tapped for "Skull and Bones" and went off to Harvard Law.

A reporter once asked Chafee where he was when the Korean War began. "I didn't even know it was on," he said, "I was sailing in the Newport to Bermuda yacht race and my girl was there in Bermuda waiting for me and all I cared about was getting to Bermuda fast." The "girl" was named Ginny and would shortly become his wife.

And here was this guy with a bride and a distinguished old family and the connections of Yale and "Bones" and Harvard Law, a fellow who might have pulled strings, but the Marine Corps got him back in there yet again, and not for a desk job in Washington. Were you sore about it? I once asked him. "No," he said. "Practicing law was pretty boring and Ginny and I thought, well, a captain's pay is pretty good and maybe we'll be sent south or to California." Where he was sent was to North Korea. Which was where I met him at Thanksgiving of 1951 on a ridgeline called 749.

I can remember him now, 46 years after, a tall, lean, athletic man in his late 20s, handsome and luxuriantly mustached with an aquiline nose and high color from sun bouncing off the mountain snow and the wind howling out of Siberia. I thought he might have French-Canadian origins, from the New England accent and his coloring.

He commanded a rifle company of the 7th Marines and we were fighting the North Koreans and he took scared kids like me and worked us in with the hard men of the company who had fought for and taken this same ridgeline in September. The men of Dog Company idolized Chafee. He was good, he was tough, he was fair, he was cool. And though we lived in filth and never washed or changed clothes, he was almost elegant. That, too, impresses Marines.

I wrote a book about it all, saying if this story had a hero, "It is Captain John H. Chafee."

Two years ago in Washington when they put up the Korean War memorial, he and I went to a reunion of the men of Dog Company. Some of them had ended up as colonels, some as blue collar working civilians. They all pressed in on Chafee, calling him "Captain," wanting to talk to him again, to shake his hand. Like all of us, he is getting older now, and I once asked what he might do later on.

"If I have my health, and the energy, I'd like to start a wrestling club for boys in the inner city. I know a little about wrestling and you can work off an awful lot of anger and frustration wrestling."

His birthday party was a grand affair, too, full of love and laughter. I'd put some of it down here if I had the room. Or if I remembered anything much once

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