Volume XXVIII Number 1
Lee Hamilton drives home a point during a lecture at the IU School of Law—Bloomington
Photos by Paul Martens
Of the People, By the People, For the People
For more than 40 years, Lee Hamilton has been known as a centrist: a calm, consensus-building congressman whose mild-mannered ways and deferential Hoosier wit have surmounted many a controversy. So it's surprising to see him pounding a lectern and very nearly thundering about what he sees as a drift of power to the executive branch that has gone too far.
"Power must be shared!" he exclaimed during a recent lecture at the Indiana University School of Law—Bloomington. In an era when partisan invective, talk-radio ad hominem attacks, and general incivility seem to dominate the political landscape, Hamilton reserves his fire for those who would undermine the "sense of balance" the country's founders wrote into the Constitution.
The drift from Congress to the president has been occurring steadily for a long time, acknowledges Hamilton, who directs the interdisciplinary Center on Congress at IUB. "I'm not naïve about this. I understand that this is not 1789, and there are a lot of things that a president has to tackle that Congress cannot," he says. "But you can't have a truly representative government without a strong legislative body."
Thoroughly enjoying his post-congressional life ("I admit that I've flunked retirement," the vigorous 74-year-old says), Lee Hamilton directs the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. as well as the IU Center on Congress. He has published numerous op-eds and radio and television pieces, as well as the recent IU Press book How Congress Works and Why You Should Care. Most notably, he served in the public limelight as vice chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission), whose final report not only drove the reorganization of federal intelligence agencies but also became a best-selling book. "For a brief moment, we were giving Harry Potter a run for his money," Hamilton says.
His homecoming trips to Indiana are regular but whirlwind tours of speaking engagements, book signings, stints in the center's offices in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and visits to his many family and friends. In Congress, Hamilton became a respected expert in foreign affairs and was consulted on virtually every major international issue by a series of presidents and secretaries of state. He was also known back home as a wizard of caring constituent service. It has been a heady life for an extraordinarily well-grounded man who grew up modestly in Evansville "more interested in basketball than anything else," he says. (Hamilton is a winner of the prestigious Trester Award and a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.)
After leading Evansville Central to a Final Four berth in the state basketball tournament, Hamilton attended DePauw University in Greencastle and vividly remembers his graduation. "I walked across the stage to get my diploma, somewhat jealous of my colleagues because I didn't have the slightest idea of what I wanted to do," he says.
After a year, he enrolled in the IUB School of Law, then went on to practice in Chicago. "I had no intention of a political career," he remembers. "I don't think I even declared my party affiliation until about 1960."
Unhappy in Chicago, Hamilton went into small-town law practice in Columbus. "I liked it there, but looking back I think I became kind of bored practicing law," he recalls. One pleasant distraction was a visit in 1960 by a group of celebrities campaigning for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Actress Angie Dickinson, writer Arthur Schlesinger, football great Whizzer White, and Ethel Kennedy were among them. Hamilton hosted their visit to Columbus and through that experience became more interested in politics. Two years later, his fraternity brother Birch Bayh ran successfully for the U.S. Senate and asked Hamilton to coordinate his campaign in Columbus. After that, it was a short step to a candidacy for Congress in 1964, which Hamilton remembers as "probably the best year for Democrats in the entire 20th century.
"Any fool on the Democratic ticket could get elected that year, and several did," he says, in typical wry fashion. "Perhaps I was among them. But nonetheless, there is a lot of luck in politics, and I happened to run in the right year." He never looked back, serving 34 years as Indiana's 9th District representative, seldom seriously challenged for reelection.
During that time, the list of his accomplishments grew long, but his passions for international policy and for communicating about the role and works of Congress stand out. At the Wilson Center, he continues to address global issues but at the Center on Congress, he avowedly stays away from substantive policy. "My aim has always been to help ordinary people—as I tell the staff, the folks who eat breakfast at McDonald's. I'm concerned that ordinary people understand Congress better so they can learn how to use it to advance their interests." The center's message, he says, is simple: "We want people to see how important Congress is in running the country and dealing with things that affect their lives—health care, jobs, the education of their children, the environment."
Such public outreach and education is crucial, Hamilton believes, because of the substantial influence of moneyed special interests on public policy. The incessant need for representatives and senators to raise money and the ensuing disproportionate power of the special interests concern him.
"This distorts representative democracy," Hamilton says. "Personally, I favor public financing of congressional campaigns, but I don't think that's a very popular view yet. When people begin to understand the impact that special interest money has, perhaps that will change."
The special interests get their way "almost every day" in the House and Senate, he says. Bills are passed that would likely not be supported by more than a tiny percentage of the general public, but they are urged by special interests. A prime recent example is the bankruptcy bill, passed last spring by both houses by large margins. "A few strong special interests wanted to improve their financial positions, and it was an issue that fell under the radar for most people," Hamilton notes. Consequently, much tougher restrictions against ordinary people declaring bankruptcy easily became law.
"The major issues—Social Security reform, Iraq, abortion—are reported by the press and are highly visible," Hamilton says. "It's the second- and third-tier issues, which don't get media attention, that the special interests have their way on. I don't want to take away the right to lobby. I just want to balance it more so that people who are left out of the money equation have representation as well."
Empowering ordinary people is at the heart of everything Hamilton is trying to do in the Center on Congress. "One of my other themes is to encourage civic participation," he says. "When people are shut out of the process and special interests dominate, ordinary citizens can become apathetic, and then cynical, and that's not good for the country."
Fortunately, it is not just campaign contributors and moneyed lobbyists who influence Congress. Research universities and think tanks, too, get attention, through books, journals, and monographs. "I've always been an avid reader of public policy documents," Hamilton says. "I've never been all that enamored of the mechanics of politics per se, but I love the public policy issues and have always paid a lot of attention to the product of universities and think tanks, as do a lot of my colleagues." Representatives, he notes, are "constantly looking for information on issues" and often turn to academic research, when it is relevant to current issues, for guidance. Thus, the product of research centers and faculty at universities such as IU is a key element of Congressional decision-making.
Another influence, which Hamilton has experienced recently, is the bipartisan commission. "Commissions start out with little or no credibility," he says. "They have no particular standing. In the case of the 9/11 Commission, we often talked among ourselves that we were set up to fail: five Republicans and five Democrats, set to report in the middle of a presidential campaign.
"At times it looked very difficult," he continues, "and on several occasions I thought the game was up, that we would issue a divided report, which would have been useless. But Tom Kean (former Republican governor of New Jersey, who chaired the panel) and I kept talking and working, and he proved a patient, good, and ultimately successful leader."
Given the difficult circumstances of the commission's creation—opposition by President Bush and skepticism by Congress and the press, among other factors—its success cannot be overstated. "I think there might be some lessons there in regard to civility and consensus-building," Hamilton notes. "We were determined that the members get to know one another not as Republicans and Democrats, but as people, and thus we didn't talk business for the first several meetings. We just got to know each other. Second, we insisted on focusing on the facts: What happened? That was the basis. Once we relentlessly established our best consensus on what happened, it was possible to achieve agreement on recommendations by talking, often until two, three, four in the morning, to come to conclusion."
The commission did a good job telling the 9/11 story, Hamilton says. "We essentially wrote the first or second draft of a history that will keep evolving as more becomes known. And we got a lot of our recommendations adopted and are still working on the ones that haven't been accepted yet. We had a sense that the country was watching, that there was great interest in what we were doing."
To overcome the White House's opposition, Hamilton and Kean spent hours with key players such as Condoleeza Rice and Alberto Gonzales, ultimately persuading them that the commission was serious and not partisan. "They came to respect our effort and to see the credibility that we were trying to build," Hamilton says.
The lessons to be drawn from the commission's success, Hamilton believes, are in part in the eye of the beholder. He's reluctant to lay out a rigid prescription for effectiveness, for any commission or legislative body. Still, some answers to the partisan bickering that threatens to overwhelm and even paralyze the Congress are evident.
"You can work out problems," Hamilton says. "You have to talk to people with a certain amount of respect for their point of view. You don't have to agree with them, but if you can carry on a dialogue with a basis of respect and civility, you have a reasonable chance of reaching an agreement."
But agreement is impossible to achieve, he says, if you believe the other side is ill-motivated. "Through mutual respect," says Hamilton, the ultimate moderate, "almost anything is possible."
And that's a lesson for any era.
Michael Wilkerson is coordinator for university arts initiatives in the IU Office of the Vice President for Research.