At 88, Lee Hamilton still preaching Democracy’s virtues
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — It was supposed to be a conversation but Lee Hamilton was preaching.
The 87-year-old former congressman was seated at the center of the stage last March. Long legs that helped him reach the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame were crossed. The bony index finger on his right hand pointed to the sky as he bellowed about the importance of NATO.
His voice grew louder in response to a question about China. The U.S. needs to push back, send ships to the South China Sea and take a tougher stance against the country’s human rights violations. Then he paused and the 139-seat auditorium fell silent.
“That’s my second sermon of the day,” he said.
Hamilton, now 88, has spent the better part of his life trying to improve the country. He spent 34 years drafting, debating and voting on legislation as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, a body created to examine the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He is a distinguished professor in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University, a school named after him and the late Sen. Richard Lugar in 2018. He’s written a column nearly every week since he was elected to Congress in 1964 and two books since leaving office.
Most of his writings focus on the importance of representative democracy, diplomacy and compromise. But early in his life, Hamilton’s mind was consumed by one thing: basketball.
Born in Daytona Beach, Florida, his father’s job as a Methodist minister took his family to Chattanooga, Tennessee, before finally settling in Evansville. Hamilton grew up in a neighborhood with a basketball goal in a vacant lot. He was there year round, sometimes playing with friends or just shooting by himself.
Always tall for his age, Hamilton grew to 6 feet 3 inches at his peak, although some programs listed him as 6-4. He played forward and center on a team that went to the Final Four of what was then a single-class tournament for all of Indiana’s high schools. He was a four-year starter at DePauw University, where he was named an outstanding senior in 1952. Then reality hit.
“At DePauw, I walked across the stage to get my diploma, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what I wanted to do,” Hamilton said.
After graduation, he attended Goethe University in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, but didn’t do much studying. He didn’t care for class, and his instructors didn’t care whether he showed up, so he spent most of a year abroad traipsing around Europe, sometimes surviving on one meal of bread and cheese in a day.
When he returned to the U.S., he decided to become a lawyer. Hamilton graduated from Indiana University Law School in 1956 and joined what he described as a big, fancy firm in Chicago. As the low man on the totem pole, he went to court for routine motions and filed papers. It left him feeling unfulfilled.
In search of meaningful work, he came back to Indiana and practiced law in Columbus. There, he found a new passion — policy.
Hamilton ran as a Democrat in 1964 to represent Indiana’s 9th Congressional District. He won but downplayed the victory.
“Any fool could get elected on the Democratic ticket that year,” he said. “Some did.”
Large majorities in the House and Senate meant Democrats could pass virtually any legislation they wanted, but it was under those lopsided circumstances that Hamilton, then 33, would learn the value of bipartisanship.
Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, wanted to pass legislation that would create Medicare. The Democrat, known as one of the most powerful men in Washington, recommended negotiating with a few Republicans to get their support.
“The request was unusual to me,” Hamilton said. “We had the votes. Why not ram it through?”
Seventy Republicans joined 237 Democrats in passing the Social Security Amendments of 1965 through the House. The program has been the source of an enormous amount of debate in the decades since. It has been amended but it was never repealed. This convinced Hamilton bipartisan support, even when not necessary, would increase the legitimacy of a bill and make implementation much easier.
Legislation that established Medicare was among a slew of bills that passed under the Democratic majorities in the first part of 1965. There was so much legislation being passed so quickly, Hamilton started to think it was time to slow down. He wrote a letter in the middle of 1965 saying as much to President Lyndon Johnson.
Hamilton argued it was time to focus on implementation. The national press got a hold of the letter and it received quite a bit of publicity, he said. It seemed to have an impact on Johnson.
“He slowed down,” Hamilton said.
Johnson took a special interest in the young congressman from Indiana. Hamilton wasn’t sure exactly why, but suspects it may have been because he was voted president of his congressional class.
Whatever the reason, Hamilton capitalized on the relationship. He invited Johnson to speak in his district. Johnson accepted at a time when presidents didn’t do much of that, especially for members of the House, Hamilton said.
During a meeting in the Oval Office, Johnson asked Hamilton what he could do to help him. Hamilton said there were several small towns in his district that could use a post office. Johnson instructed Postmaster General Larry O’Brien to build new offices wherever Hamilton requested.
The favors were payback for Hamilton’s support of Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education and various other pieces of Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. But things would soon change.
“We had a good working relationship,” Hamilton said. “Then came Vietnam.”
Hamilton went to Congress supporting the war. Then, the whole country started to shift and he shifted with it. Hamilton came to the conclusion the U.S. could not win the war, at least not at a price most Americans were willing to pay.
Generals in Vietnam kept asking Johnson for more men. They’d request an additional 50,000 soldiers. Johnson would oblige and they’d ask for 50,000 more, Hamilton said.
With no end in sight, Hamilton offered one of the early amendments to cut funding for the war. The amendment failed, but it sent a signal the House was turning on Vietnam.
That night, there was a social event in the East Room of the White House. Johnson spotted Hamilton through the crowd and walked over, without saying a word to anyone else on the way.
“Lee,” Hamilton recalled Johnson saying,” how could you do this to me?”
Hamilton felt awful, but was convinced he was right in offering the amendment.
Reflecting on the decision more than half a century later, Hamilton said the obligation of a congressman is difficult to define. He has an obligation to his constituents but also to his party and sometimes the other party. There is an obligation to the institution of Congress and personal obligations to those who donated to a campaign.
When all those interests line up, decisions are easy. When they’re split, representatives have to think through their decisions.
“I think you’re elected to use your own judgment,” Hamilton said. “So that’s what I tried to do.”
Enough voters trusted Hamilton’s judgment to elect him 17 times. But it’s unclear whether a politician like Hamilton would be successful in today’s hyper-partisan political climate.
As a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs for more than three decades in Congress, Hamilton traveled all over the world. He’s been to Tokyo, met multiple Jordanian kings and had dinner with Egyptian President Muhammad Anwar Sadat at his home in Alexandria overlooking the Nile. Lately, his trips have been limited to the drive between his home in Bloomington and IU’s campus.
Before heading to his office, Hamilton stops at the Student Recreational Sports Center. He’s usually there by 7 a.m.
One morning, while riding a recumbent bicycle, he reflected on how his life has changed. The last time he traveled extensively was to support President Barack Obama during his time in office.
“Trump hasn’t asked me to do anything,” Hamilton said. “He’s the only president since Kennedy I didn’t know.”
For the past four years, IU’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies has hosted a conference called “America’s Role in The World.” Speakers have included Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and former U.S Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz.
In March, the conference included a conversation with the school’s namesakes, Hamilton and Lugar. During the session, Hamilton railed against President Donald Trump for comments the president made after meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. He called the president out for saying he and Jong-Un had fallen in love.
“Falling in love with Kim?” Hamilton said. “He’s one of the most brutal men in the world.”
Trump claimed after the meeting North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat.
“Baloney!” Hamilton said. “How could you possibly meet with that man and know the record of North Korea and come away thinking you had solved the problem?”
The Trump administration’s interactions with North Korea should serve as an example of how not to conduct diplomacy, Hamilton continued. Then, he changed his tone.
“I have my problems with President Trump, as you might well imagine,” Hamilton said. “But I do not want him to fail.”
When Hamilton discusses the divisions that seem to be pulling the nation apart today, he often cites a line from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from 1863: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
The answer was in doubt then and it’s in doubt now, Hamilton said. It’s not guaranteed that the nation will succeed, but it has benefited from an extraordinary system. That system will sustain itself and the country will prosper if each person does their job.
“Representative democracy puts a heavy burden on citizens,” he said. “We have to respond the best we can.”
Source: The Herald-Times
Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com