A Message from the Director

September 11, 2023 - Features

Legacy, History, and Our Opportunity to Shape the Future

by Audrey Coleman, Director, Dole Institute of Politics

“Free government does not repose upon its citizens, but sets them in the vanguard of battle to defend the liberty of free men.” – inscription on KU’s WWII Memorial Campanile

This summer our Landmark Celebration honored the 20-year anniversary since the dedication of the Dole Institute here at KU. Contemplating the World Trade Center beams in our galleries this past week, another, earlier milestone came to mind: our groundbreaking, which took place in October 2001, barely 4 weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks.

In the aftermath of that tragic day, Americans were united in both grief and resolve to defend against those who were threatened by freedom and democracy. The Dole Institute, at its groundbreaking, embodied that spirit.

Less than two years later, in July 2003, that shared spirit and all its hopes for the future found a home in Kansas’ newest landmark, while celebrating the accomplishments of the Greatest Generation, who after the attacks on Pearl Harbor rallied around a common cause, with over 16 million young men risking their lives in the service of democracy. These young Americans understood their purpose was to defend their nation and liberties, transcending partisan divides to build a prosperous future. Just as World War II defined a generation at KU and across the nation, it provided an answer to the existential question of purpose.

We are all fully aware that the political and civic landscape has dramatically moved away from a spirit of unity and clarity of purpose.  Our nation’s discourse is too often defined by polarizing rhetoric. Too many Americans do not trust those from the opposing party, government institutions, or democratic processes.

A ray of hope emerges from a recent Harvard Youth poll of 18-29 year-olds. While disconnection and fear persist, a significant portion of young Americans identify as unaffiliated or loosely affiliated with either major political party, indicating a potential move away from the strident political tribalism of the past few decades. This presents an opportunity for change, compromise, and a fresh approach to politics—if we can harness the right message and engage them effectively.

Today, the Dole Institute stands – physically, with both our World Trade Center memorial and original WWII Veterans Memory Wall – as a testament to the foundational American ideals of unity and service, from The Greatest Generation to another Greatest Generation now coming to the fore.

Bob Dole and his cohort lead the nation to unparalleled prosperity and unrivaled world leadership. Beneath their politics was unity and shared understanding that democracy doesn’t defend itself and self-governance is not a birthright.

Senator Dole always knew that the Institute’s mission was “bigger than Bob Dole”. A century after his birth and nearly two years after his death — just how much bigger, we now know: for this style of leadership to thrive, it first needs a political culture that values it. While we know bipartisan compromise and civil discourse are ways to make democracy work, we first have to want it to work, and be willing to place that cause first and foremost before the politics of the day.

Here at the Dole Institute we stive to seize each day’s opportunity to inspire a new “Greatest Generation” that unites in purpose behind the democratic ideals that make our nation the greatest on earth – and practices a politics that respects them.

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