These interviews took place on September 27, 2007, and April 28, 2010, at the IU McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.Learn more about Lee Hamilton
Part oneSkip to next interview transcript
SCARPINO: We are on and the tape recorder is recording. Today is September 27, 2007, and I am in Inlow Hall interviewing former congressman Lee Hamilton. I’d like to thank you very much for taking the time to sit with me, and as I said before I turned the recorder on, I’d like to ask your permission to record the interview, transcribe the interview and to place the transcription and the recording in the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives.
HAMILTON: You have such permission.
SCARPINO: Thank you.
SCARPINO: I also say for the record that most of this interview will focus on the Tobias Center standard leadership questions which I had sent to your assistant. But I do want to start with a few general questions just to kind of set a context. I’m actually going to start with high school if you don’t mind.
SCARPINO: Then if we’re able to schedule a second interview I’d like to talk with you in more detail about your career as it relates to leadership. First, I note that you were born in Daytona Beach, Florida, April 30, 1931, and your family...
HAMILTON: April 20. . .
SCARPINO: Oh April 20, sorry. 1931. And your family moved first to Tennessee and then Indiana. You attended Central High School in Evansville, graduating in 1948, where you won the Arthur L. Trester Award for Excellence in Basketball. When you were in high school did you consider yourself to be a leader?
HAMILTON: Well I really didn’t think much about it. My focus in high school was basketball and athletics. I guess I felt like I was a leader of the team but not particularly a leader beyond that. My whole energy, my interest, was basketball, and I’m not sure I recommend that to people. But that was true in my case.
SCARPINO: Well you eventually ended up in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
HAMILTON: Yeah, that’s right.
SCARPINO: Were there any individuals during your high school years who had an influence in shaping the leader that you became?
HAMILTON: Well, in addition to my parents, of course, the coaches were the strongest influence on my early life. Beginning at a quite early time in grade school I had a very good basketball coach and then went into high school. I happened to be moving into high school with a group of freshmen ball players who were recognized to be a superior team, so the coaches spent a lot of time with us. One of the coaches lived very close to me, and I used to ride into school with him every day. So there were about four or five coaches— freshmen, junior varsity, varsity— coaches that really profoundly impacted my outlook on things, in addition to my parents.
SCARPINO: Were there any events that took place during the years in high school that really influenced the leader you later became?
HAMILTON: Well, the biggest events in my life were basketball tournaments.
HAMILTON: We had a basketball coach who was fired, for reasons, I must say, I don’t recall completely. But the school went out on strike—students, which in those days and I guess even in these days is quite unusual. I helped organize that strike. And we won; they hired him back. But it was a several-day incident, maybe stretching over a week or so, a very intense excitement—students demonstrating in the halls, marching in the streets, and it was kind of a major event in my high school career, actually.
SCARPINO: And you helped to organize this?
HAMILTON: Yeah, I wouldn’t say I was a chief organizer, but I certainly played a role in it, because I was very sympathetic to the coach that was let go, and felt that he had been not fairly treated. So I was quite active in it.
SCARPINO: You attended DePauw University, where you majored in history and continued to play basketball. I also read that you were involved in student government. Did you think of yourself as a leader in college?
HAMILTON: In the first couple of years the answer would be no. My junior and senior year I took leadership positions. The president of the fraternity I was in, I headed up the Methodist student movement which was at DePauw, being a Methodist school was quite active and quite large, and I took the leadership in several extracurricular activities.
SCARPINO: What fraternity did you belong to?
HAMILTON: ATO, Alpha Tao Omega.
SCARPINO: So did I, for the record.
HAMILTON: (Laughing) Are you in that? Well I’d slip you the handshake but I’ve forgotten it.
SCARPINO: I don’t remember the handshake. (Laughing) I know we had one.
SCARPINO: Were there any individuals that you encountered during your years in college that influenced the leader you became?
HAMILTON: I don’t—none really stand out in my mind. In general I admired my professors and felt they were very, very good, with one or two exceptions I guess, and I began to work harder as a student. I was not a particularly strong student early on but I became a pretty good student by the end of my college career and—but I don’t identify them. I majored—you mentioned my major in history—I think I majored in history just because they had an exceedingly strong department in history with four or five excellent teachers, and I think they certainly broadened my intellectual horizons a good bit. I was not at all successful in the sciences or in mathematics, and so I moved away from those, and went into the social sciences. In addition to history I spent quit a bit of time in philosophy. I think I may have had almost a major in philosophy.
SCARPINO: When you eventually went into law and then became a. . .
HAMILTON: I left college and spent a year abroad. I enrolled at the Goethe University in Frankfurt Am Main, Germany. In those days and I guess it’s true today, the German universities don’t really care whether you attend class, and I certainly didn’t attend/care. I basically spent the year traveling, and I had never been overseas before. So I toured all through Western Europe, and went into East Berlin, didn’t go any farther east than that. North into Scandinavia, south into Italy, Siberian peninsula. So the year was hugely important to me. Not from an academic standpoint, but from just a broadening view and I began really in, while I was abroad, to get interested in public affairs. I was there in Frankfurt right after the war, just a few years after the war— World War two, and it was the beginning of the German economic miracle. I took quite an interest in German resurgence, and decided there that I would go to law school, although I had no real connection with the law at all. Nobody in my family were lawyers and I didn’t even know any lawyers very well. But I decided that I would at least try law school and there were a lot of people going into law then that didn’t really plan to practice law, I think. I went in as kind of a wide open—new challenge to me, new world.
SCARPINO: When you made the decision to go to law school did you do that with politics in mind?
HAMILTON: No. My interest in politics came quite a bit later. My interest in public policy was beginning to emerge, but I didn’t really think about running for public office during the entire time I was in law school. I thought I’d practice law for a while.
SCARPINO: And you did?
HAMILTON: And I did. But during that period I began to pay more attention to the political world, but did not participate in any way. I didn’t even declare a party preference at that point. When I got out of law school I went to Chicago and practiced with a small elite firm there. Very, very good lawyers.
SCARPINO: What was the name of the firm?
HAMILTON: At the time it was Wilkinson, Witwer and Moran. They were only five or six partners—very, what I would call silk stocking kind of a practice. I was one of two associates so I did a lot of library work in those days, spent a lot of time in the library. I filed all the papers down at the Cook County courthouse and argued some fairly minor motions. The firm really didn’t do much litigation. I got a little bored with it and decided to come to Indiana, and I did. I went to Columbus, Indiana.
SCARPINO: When you were in Columbus, according to what I read, you did become politically active as a Democrat.
HAMILTON: I did.
SCARPINO: When you picked a preference, why did you pick the Democrats over the Republicans?
HAMILTON: Well, first of all, it was not family. To this day I can’t tell you how my father and mother voted, although I don’t think either one of them voted what you would call a straight-line ticket. I guess my sympathies moved in that direction. Birch Bayh was a very good friend of mine. He ran—he was president of the ATO chapter at Purdue. I was the president of the ATO chapter at DePauw. We met at several conferences —that was a factor. John F. Kennedy probably was a factor, although I’m not sure I remembered that keenly at the time. If you’re a lawyer practicing in Indiana in a county seat town, you are kind of pushed or pulled in the direction of politics. The county counsel needs a lawyer, the zoning board needs a lawyer, and they tend to be politicians, local politicians, and so they want you to identify yourself as a Democrat or a Republican. I kind of fell into it, I guess; it wasn’t any clear, straight intellectual decision. I was in a Republican firm and they were kind of glad to have a Democrat in the firm so that they’d get more business. (Laughing)
SCARPINO: What was the name of your firm in Columbus?
HAMILTON: Sharpnack and Bigley. The Sharpnacks were a very prominent family in Bartholomew County. The senior partner was quite an elderly man in his eighties, Judge Sharpnack. His son, Lou Sharpnack, was chief trial lawyer of the firm, a very good one. Mr. Bigley had been president of the Indiana bar. There were two or three partners, and I was an associate initially; they brought me in as a partner within a year or so.
SCARPINO: You served as a member of Congress from Indiana’s 9th congressional district, from 1965 to...
HAMILTON: ’65, yeah.
SCARPINO: Right. The election was in ’64, is that right?
SCARPINO: Even year. Until 1999. What prompted you to run for Congress?
HAMILTON: I think the answer was the law was a little boring to me. The only thing I really enjoyed was trying cases. We were trying a lot of eminent domain cases, I guess not usually thought of as very exciting, but I-65 was going through the county and I must have tried a dozen of those cases. Then, because I was the bottom partner, we had in place at that time this system they called pauper attorneys to represent poor defendants in criminal cases, and because the other partners wouldn’t handle that I did quite a bit of what you would call minor criminal trial work. And then also because the senior partners didn’t like to fool around with divorces, I handled a lot of divorce cases and family domestic relation cases. I liked that part of it. It was not what you’d call high-level law practice, but I enjoyed the courtroom work. But overall I think I had a kind of a sense of I’m not getting anywhere, and this isn’t captivating my interest. So I began to look at politics more seriously.
SCARPINO: Well, you represented Indiana in Congress for 34 years.
SCARPINO: How did being a congressman captivate your interest?
HAMILTON: Well it’s a captivating career. You have the sense in the Congress, whether or not it’s accurate, that you’re in the center of things, big things. And you have a sense that you are making a contribution towards the direction and the success of your country, I believe, even though you may not be. I found it quite compatible with my interests. I like the people in the Congress. Always an important factor, I think.
SCARPINO: Both sides of the aisle?
SCARPINO: Both sides of the aisle?
HAMILTON: Both sides of the aisle. They—I really liked members of Congress, with very, very few exceptions. I think that they’re a special breed; they’re energetic, they’re committed, ideologically have strong views often times. But they’re attractive people, for the most part, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed working with people even when I didn’t agree with them, a lot.
SCARPINO: What do you think of the leadership qualities that distinguish an effective congressman or congressperson?
HAMILTON: Well, there are a lot of different kinds of congressmen and women. You can classify them in different ways. There are inside players and outside players. There are legislators and there are politicians, and the Congress is a big enough body you really need them all. To be an effective member of Congress I think you have to master your brief, and have to be seen as a serious person in terms of legislation. I think the skill that is most needed in the Congress and probably most appreciated is the capacity to build consensus, because it’s not easy to do. It’s not difficult to walk into a room this size with ten people seated around the table with a lot of different views and blow it apart, I mean, what’s hard is to bring people together. The challenge of building a consensus on difficult issues really caught my interest.
SCARPINO: How did you go about doing that?
HAMILTON: Well, the first thing is just to establish a rapport with people of different political persuasions, not all of whom are in the opposite party; some of them are in your own party. Not to summarily dismiss them because you don’t agree with them. What you have to do is search out common views and identify areas where you disagree. Think, then, about how you bridge the disagreements. Sometimes it’s doable, sometimes it’s not. But you ask yourself how can you accommodate different points of view, without giving up what you want to try to achieve, which is a very difficult political judgment, oftentimes.
SCARPINO: When you ran for Congress the first time, what were your issues? How did you persuade the people of the 9th district to vote for you?
HAMILTON: I came along at an interesting time. I didn’t realize it in 1964, but 1964 was probably the strongest Democratic year in that century. That was just luck on my part, I mean, I hadn’t figured that out. I’ve often said that any fool on the Democratic ticket could get elected in 1964, and several did. So that was all luck. That was the Johnson/Goldwater year. Goldwater was kind of a strong uncompromising conservative, and Johnson was quite a skillful politician who took advantage of it. And then he of course had the legacy of the Kennedy assassination which put him in a very formidable position.
But the issues were clear, and even stark: Medicare, federal aid to education, war on poverty. There were very major, even momentous, decisions made in the so-called Great Society program, which has been of course praised and criticized subsequently. But the early days of my career, we had this flood of legislation coming along, which had backed up during the Kennedy assassination period in the early part of the Johnson administration. And those of us on the Democratic side at least thought there was a mandate. Oftentimes, you know, politicians always argue about what the mandate is. In this case, there was no doubt about it, at least in our minds. And so. . .
SCARPINO: What did you think the mandate was?
HAMILTON: To pass that legislation. Now just beginning at that time was Vietnam, and it had not yet become a major issue in 1964. But it quickly did, and in ‘66 and ‘68 then Vietnam really became a very, very big issue.
SCARPINO: Where did you stand on the question of the United States. . .
HAMILTON: I went to the Congress supporting the war, and so voted for a period of maybe two, maybe three years. I took two trips to Vietnam and I began to have doubts about it. I offered one of the early amendments on the floor to reduce our troop commitments in Vietnam. I’m not sure why the Democratic leadership picked me to offer the amendment. I think they wanted a new voice, not one of the older ones there. We lost the vote, but we got a lot more votes than people thought we would get, and it was kind of the beginning of Congress rebelling against the Vietnam policy.
I’ll never forget after that particular vote I went to the White House and— just as a coincidence after some social event, and President Johnson came up to me. President Johnson had been very good to me, and he said to me, “Lee, how could you do this to me?” Which was kind of agonizing because he had helped me a lot—I wouldn’t have been elected if Johnson hadn’t been on the ticket in ‘64. It kind of shows you the anguish you can confront in politics sometimes. I didn’t apologize for my vote, for my position and my vote, but I was pained by the fact that I was actually hurting him.
SCARPINO: What did you think of Lyndon Johnson as a leader?
HAMILTON: Oh my. I’ll have to come back for that session and we can spend all the time on that. He was no doubt about being a leader. He was hugely energetic, never stopped working, and he—the question always on his mind, the business of winning over votes just fascinated him. And the question always on his mind was what do I have to say to get this guy to get him to vote my way, and whatever it was, he’d say it. But he was very, very good at identifying your interests, and then framing an argument from his way. He was a natural politician, not a very good speaker. Boorish in many ways. But totally focused on gaining votes, even when he was president. Probably as good as any president as I remember working with the Congress just because he knew it so well. You know, he had been a member of the House, he’d been a member of the Senate. Just a very, very able politician.
SCARPINO: I’m going to switch to our standard leadership questions with the time we I have left. If we have an opportunity to talk again I really would like to talk to you about Congress in greater detail.
HAMILTON: I will come back again. Or I can come to Washington, either way. We have to go to Richmond tonight. I have to speak at Earlham pretty early on this evening, so we have to leave here pretty quickly. But go ahead, and I was a few minutes late getting here so we’ll run ‘til five after, ten after, if that’s ok. If you have to leave. . .
SCARPINO: I have a speaker coming in from San Francisco.
HAMILTON: You’ve got to go San Francisco?
SCARPINO: (Laughing) No, I need to greet the speaker.
HAMILTON: Oh ok, very good.
SCARPINO: So I sent these questions to your assistant. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at them. . .
HAMILTON: I saw them this morning, I can’t answer very many of them, but let’s go ahead.
SCARPINO: Well, I bet you can. (Laughing) The first question is, what do you read?
HAMILTON: Well, I still spend an enormous amount of time just reading government reports, because I am heavily engaged in a lot of different things. I read a lot of news sources; I read six, seven newspapers a day. I read all the news magazines. I read the Congressional Quarterly, I read the National Journal. I read an enormous number of reports that come in to me from FBI, and the DHS and the CIA and a lot of other places. So I don’t do much leisure reading. To the point that I do, I’ve just recently started a project of reading these American Presidency series. Do you know that series, that Schlesinger put together? It’s a very quick way to learn American history painlessly, and I enjoy the biographies.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you a question that I wanted to ask you about Congress because it relates I guess generally to what do you read. In all the years that you were in Congress and all the votes that you cast on a range of issues that affected your constituents in the country and the world sometimes, how did you get the information so that you were confident in the votes that you cast?
HAMILTON: Well, you’re often not confident. But you look to a variety of sources. You look to your constituents. Other people tend to make like of that, but politicians don’t make light of it; they do pay attention to their constituents. You look to your party. You look to the President, whether he is of your party or not, you almost always know the President’s position. You look to lobbying groups, particularly ones that are strong in your constituency. It’s an easy vote if all of these things and others kind of point in the same direction. It’s a hard vote if they go off in different directions. At the end of the day on a hard vote, you have to put your feet up on the table and look out the window and just decide what you want to do. You never have all the information you’d like to have. You often have a ton of information. You don’t always have all you want. And in this day and age, so much of the information you get is tilted toward the direction of the person supplying the information. Nothing wrong with that in our system, but you always have to ask yourself the question, “Where am I getting the information?”
SCARPINO: Did your staff filter information?
HAMILTON: Oh yeah, staff is very, very important.
SCARPINO: What do you think a leader should read, just in general?
HAMILTON: A leader should read?
HAMILTON: Well, I guess I’d answer that biography more than anything else. It depends on what area you’re talking about, obviously. If you’re a manager of a big corporation you want to read a lot about management. If you are running a congressional office, probably not as important to read about management. But my answer would be biography, I think.
SCARPINO: Do you ever read about other leaders?
HAMILTON: Oh yeah, yeah. I’m fascinated by other leaders, particularly American leaders. My favorites are the Founding Fathers. My favorite period of American history is the revolutionary period.
SCARPINO: Gee, I’m teaching that now. I should. . .
SCARPINO: I said I’m teaching that now. I should arrange for you to come in and talk to my students and tell them why it’s really important.
HAMILTON: Well, my favorite leader in that period is Madison, because he was, you know—I’m kind of enchanted with him. He was a lousy speaker and physically unimpressive, shy in many respects, socially inept, but of course a political genius. I don’t think he could ever get elected to Congress today. (Laughing) He wouldn’t look very good on television today, I don’t believe...
SCARPINO: I think you’re right. Who do you think are important leaders?
SCARPINO: Who do you believe are important leaders?
HAMILTON: Oh gosh, I don’t know how to answer that. A lot of people are important leaders because of their position.
SCARPINO: Anyone that particularly stands out in your experience?
HAMILTON: I’m often asked about the presidents that I’ve known and worked with. I’m not even sure I can answer it from that standpoint, because every president has their strengths and has their weaknesses. But presidents are driven people, they’re not normal. The only normal president I’ve known was Gerry Ford and he backed in to the presidency.
SCARPINO: I’ll ask, what made Gerry Ford normal?
SCARPINO: I’ll ask, what made Gerry Ford normal?
HAMILTON: He did not have the kind of driving ambition that it takes today to become president, because he came in the back door. He was appointed vice president and then Nixon resigned, so he never was elected. Ford was a very genuine decent man, and I can fully understand why he was captain of the football team and minority leader. The year I came to the Congress was ‘65 and that’s the year he overthrew Charlie Halleck as the minority leader. He did it in large part with sheer work and effort, but the contrast between Halleck and Ford was stark. Halleck was a very smart guy, mastered the intricacies of parliamentary procedure. But sour, dour. You asked—I didn’t know Charlie Halleck that well, but you asked yourself the question, “How could this guy ever become leader?” He doesn’t have the attributes of popularity. Ford did have—everybody liked Gerry Ford. You couldn’t stay mad at Gerry Ford. He was very straightforward. You’d say something, and he’d say, “I don’t agree with that.” Fine, he didn’t agree with it. (Laughing) But he didn’t—there was no disingenuousness about it. I admired him. He lived only a few houses from me. And Betty Ford and my wife are good friends. I appreciated Gerry Ford, but he was not a normal president. Normal presidents are warped in many ways, they really are warped. They just have this driving ambition. Dick Nixon is a good example of it. Nixon, with all of the defeats and setbacks he had, he had this driving ambition to become president. And he was not—he was an introvert. He didn’t like people. He had none of the characteristics you would associate with a politician, but he had that ambition. And of course substantively, intellectually he was top drawer. Very, very good.
SCARPINO: Why do you think he got himself in so much trouble?
HAMILTON: No moral compass, I think. He was schizophrenic; people were plotting against him all the time. He had some basis for that, I guess, but he was suspicious of everybody. He did not like minorities, he did not like Jews. He had a lot of hostility in him. I don’t know. It would take a psychiatrist to figure that guy out. There were a lot of problems and he certainly wasn’t normal in the ordinary sense. (Laughing)
SCARPINO: Were there leaders who inspired you?
SCARPINO: Were there particular leaders that inspired you...
HAMILTON: The leaders that inspired me have been the historical figures more than personal ones.
SCARPINO: Were there people who helped you along the way as you developed your own career that really stand out?
HAMILTON: Well, Gerry. You know Dick Stoner—he was a huge help to me, he was Vice President of Cummins Engine Company, a strong Democrat. Dick and I became very good friends. He never was himself a candidate for public office but he had an enormous interest in it. He certainly made things easier for me, promoted me along the way in county and district politics. But look, you can’t be in politics without having to have the help of a lot of people. Everywhere you turn you need help from people. So the list would be very, very long.
SCARPINO: Do you think that having a mentor or mentors played a role in your development as a leader? Did you have mentors along the way?
HAMILTON: I don’t know that I had mentors along the way. I tended to go to people who were expert in the field I was focusing on. They were often academics or think tank people, sometimes in the government. I had an awful lot of admiration for some people that I didn’t necessarily agree with. Dean Rusk was an outstanding figure, a person of impeccable integrity, wholly committed to anti-communism, stopping the flood of communism in southeast Asia and so on. But a person of great moral character, and I greatly admired him even as I began to disagree with him on the war. And I can pick out a lot of people but he comes to mind very quickly.
SCARPINO: Robert McNamara, would you have contacted him?
HAMILTON: McNamara was exceedingly an impressive man. He came to the defense secretary. Incidentally, John Kennedy had never met him; never met him when he appointed him as the secretary of defense. The first time he ever met him was when Bob McNamara came to his home in Georgetown when he was president-elect and Kennedy didn’t know who he was. (Laughing) But that’s neither here nor there. He came before the committees of the Congress, and he was a machine gun in terms of facts. He poured out information, statistical information on all kinds of descriptions about KIA’s, villages pacified, and on and on, and I took it all in when I was a freshman, sophomore.
Then I went to Vietnam and I had this experience. I was out in the field with a captain, quite a bit towards the front lines. The captain and his men heard a lot of rustling over in a big hedge, a hedgerow over here. So they poured about three or four minutes of machine guns into that hedgerow; blew off every leaf in the hedgerow. After it was over, I said, “Well, what are you doing?” He said, “I’m writing my report.” I said, “How many are you putting down killed in action?” He said “I’m putting down ten.” I said, “I didn’t see anybody.” He said, “There must have been ten in there.” And so I came back and I decided that a lot of the statistics that McNamara was throwing were phony. I don’t think McNamara would agree with that. He thought the chain of command gave him accurate information. But I began to have great doubts about it. So in time McNamara did too, and he became a very tormented man, McNamara. After he left the Secretary’s position, I had dinner with him one night in Aspen, Colorado at a restaurant, and he just broke down in tears. He just lost it, because of his role in Vietnam. He agonized about it; still does. He’s in his eighties, he got married recently. He was a whiz kid, Ford Motor President at a very, very young age.
GERALD BEPKO: He wrote a book.
HAMILTON: He wrote a book. That’s right. He spent—he went to the World Bank to apologize. And I believe he made a great contribution there in directing the resources of the bank towards the poor. He’s a very compassionate man, which may fool you a little bit. And emotional, as his experience there indicated.
SCARPINO: I raise his name because of his association with Vietnam while you were in Congress, because I assume that you must have been committee chair.
HAMILTON: I was a rising member of the committee, I guess, at that time. I don’t think I was a chair, but I got to know him pretty well. I’ve known him—even today I consider him a good friend, and I’ve had a number of meetings with him in Aspen and other locales. And when I say he is tormented man, I mean it. He’s a tormented man.
BEPKO: To take advantage of the little extra time that Congressman Hamilton may have, and to keep you on time, if you’ll just tell me how to turn that off, I can ask a few questions that I’ve made notes on here, and then conclude when...
SCARPINO: OK then, and I’m going to say for the record that the speaker is Gerald Bepko. And. . .
BEPKO: I’ve already waived all my rights.
SCARPINO: That’s right. We all had to sign a waiver before we started this project, didn’t we? The little button that says “Stop” right here.
Um, I will. . .
HAMILTON: You were going to go meet the speaker, did you say?
SCARPINO: I’m good until about five after. Why don’t I just stay? Go ahead and answer your questions. That way I can take this with me.
HAMILTON: Speaker Pelosi?
SCARPINO: Oh, no no no. This is a speaker from—actually it’s a historian who works for Wells Fargo Corporation.
HAMILTON: I’m sorry. Speaker has a certain connotation in my mind.
SCARPINO: One more question. Then I’ll wrap up what I want to say here. Do you, as a leader, mentor other people?
SCARPINO: That was easy. This is where I stop. Okay, so Gerry, you’re on.
BEPKO: What lessons about leadership do you think were derived from the problems that Robert McNamara had with the military during the Vietnam War in the sense that an organization of committed military personnel should never give false information, but yet there was a good bit of it in Vietnam; what lessons can be drawn from that about leadership and what to do in the future? And do you think we’re having some of the same problems with our military operations in Iraq?
HAMILTON: I think we are. I think the leaders have to be skeptical, even of their own people. And, I think presidents have to be. There is an aura in government that attaches, certainly to the president, but also a secretary of a major department. And people feed information to them that they know the leader wants to hear. And I think it’s a huge problem. I think a leader has real trouble getting independent advice. The problem in the government, the problem with the president—we elect very good politicians to be president, but once we do, we put them in a cocoon. And it is impossible for a president in the United States to have anything approaching a normal Congress session, anytime, anywhere. And he selects people to serve him and those people are dedicated to the service of that person. Rarely I think they really give him independent advice, and I think presidents need it.
BEPKO: In his book about leadership, Randy Tobias talks about the development of culture within organization. It’s the ethic of an organization. Military training, you would think, would include preparation for being candid and objective with the officers of the line. . .
HAMILTON: Well, you would think it would but it doesn’t work that way because their promotion depends on the favor of the guy up there. Gerry, I’ve sat in on a number of board meetings—I’m not talking about the military now—where I go into the management committee of a major American company. I did it last week—I won’t tell you what company. There were five people in the room in addition to myself, one of whom was one of the top corporate leaders in America, and I am nonplussed at the deference paid to the leader, to the point where they don’t speak until he has spoken, the leader. They don’t ever say anything that is remotely contradictory, and every comment they make reinforces what the leader just said. I have seen that in half a dozen or a dozen corporations. The same thing operates in government today. The number of times I have been in a cabinet room in the White House with the top secretaries, top members of Congress, where the secretaries would say anything to the president contrary to what the president thought. I think I can number on the fingers of one hand.
BEPKO: So they all go into office saying that I want people who will tell me the truth. I want people who will give me their candid best advice no matter whether it’s. . .
HAMILTON: Not true.
BEPKO: It’s not true? They don’t want it. They really don’t want it.
HAMILTON: It’s not all the fault of the president. It’s the people around him, as much as it is the president, I think. It’s a serious flaw. I was talking with a group of members of Congress the other day about the role of the Congress in making decisions and they get all interested in the War Powers Act and the Constitution of Provisions, and so forth. And I said look, from my point of view, practically what you want is when a president is sitting down trying to decide whether to intervene militarily, what you want is to assure that the president gets independent advice. He may not follow it. What you don’t want is everybody sitting around the table and doing what they know the president wants to do, or what they think the president wants to do. “Mr. President, that’s a slam dunk!”
HAMILTON: That’ll forever be the example. George Tenet knew that wasn’t a slam dunk because George Tenet had underneath him a lot of analysts who were saying to him there just is not hard evidence of the WMD in Iraq. George Tenet, who is an admiral of a guy in many ways, but he’s a better politician than he is intelligence officer. And he told the president exactly what the president wanted to hear.
SCARPINO: Did you have people on your congressional staff who would tell you what you didn’t want to hear?
HAMILTON: No, I’m afraid the same thing operates to a lesser degree at the congressional level. I think it operates in the private sector. I mentioned the corporate sector. It’s not an easy question. When do you take on the leader?
BEPKO: There is one part of our society where this principal doesn’t operate though, and that’s the university, because when I was chancellor of the faculty they would tell me whatever they thought no matter how repugnant it may have been to me. (Laughing)
HAMILTON: Well that’s probably on the plus side for the university, from my point of view, but you’re probably correct.
BEPKO: What did you think of Dick Stoner as a leader? What were the things that made him so good?
HAMILTON: Well I’m a very biased man. Dick was a marvelous person. He— intellectually of the highest caliber, he was. . .
SCARPINO: We should probably say for the record, for ten to twenty years in the future, who Dick Stoner is.
SCARPINO: Who is Dick Stoner?
HAMILTON: Dick Stoner was vice president of Cummins Engine Company, lived in Columbus, Indiana, a very close friend of mine. My judgment about him would be highly biased, but he was a superb leader, Dick. Within the company, within the corporate world, the right-hand man of J. Irwin Miller, who, as you recall, was the chief guy. But a very democratic man. That is a small “d,” but also a large “D.” But he genuinely believed in the democratic process. Dick would come with me, for example, to Rising Sun, Indiana, smallest county in the state. I’d walk up and down the streets trying to find somebody to hand literature to. And Dick, vice president of Cummins Engine Company, would be handing out literature on my behalf. (laughing) Boggles the mind! But morally he was a high-caliber person and I just had enormous respect for him.
BEPKO: For the record, he was also the Chair of the President of the Indiana University Board of Trustees for a number of years. . .
HAMILTON: That’s correct.
BEPKO: . . .a period of high performance and peace within the Trustees.
HAMILTON: He was very—he was a superb communicator, in this sense. He tried to keep in touch with everybody on the board and within the company. He recognized that one of his responsibilities was communication, communication, communication. Networking, networking, networking.
SCARPINO: Do you think that communication and networking are marks of leadership?
HAMILTON: Oh yes. It’s a very, very important aspect of it.
SCARPINO: Gerry, we should probably let the Congressman. . .
SCARPINO: This one’s live and we’re on. So as I said when the recorder was off, my name is Philip Scarpino. I’m the Director of Oral History for the Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence. I have the privilege this morning to be interviewing former congressman Mr. Lee Hamilton. We’re in a conference room in Inlow Hall, the IUPUI School of Law on the IUPUI campus. This is the second interview with Mr. Hamilton. He has a long and distinguished career as a public servant including 34 years in the U. S. Congress from Indiana’s 9th District and the focus of this interview will be on Mr. Hamilton’s views on leadership. So I would like to ask you for permission to record this interview, to have the interviews transcribed, and to place the interview and the transcriptions in the. . .
HAMILTON: You have my permission to use the interview in any way you see fit.
SCARPINO: Thank you very much. So I’d like to start with a follow-up question from our first interview. In 1962 you managed Birch Bayh’s senate campaign in Bartholomew County. You mentioned that you knew Birch Bayh, among other things, because he’d been President of the Purdue Chapter of ATO and you’d been President of the DePauw Chapter. In 1962 he was 32 years old. He narrowly defeated Republican Homer Capehart who had served in the Senate since 1944. I’ve read descriptions that describe Bayh’s triumph as a surprise victory. So my first question is were you surprised that he won?
HAMILTON: Well I knew very little about Indiana politics at the time. He brought to the campaign enormous energy and the contrast between a very young Birch Bayh and an older Senator Capehart who, as I recall didn’t move around all that easily, was stark. I was surprised, nonetheless, with the victory because the last weekend we had the Cuban missile crisis and that tended to look like Homer Capehart looked good and I thought we probably were at least even going into the election when those events surrounding the Cuban missile crisis occurred I thought we had lost it and then as it was he won it.
SCARPINO: Why did you think the Cuban missile crisis made Senator Capehart look good?
HAMILTON: I don’t recall the details but I just think that Senator Capehart had made some statements which were very hawkish statements and in that tense period I think that was closer to where the American people were.
SCARPINO: What was your role in Birch Bayh’s campaign?
HAMILTON: Mine was quite modest. I chaired the campaign for him in a single county, Bartholomew County, and was pleased that we did as well as we did. That’s a Republican county down there. I set up a number of events for him in Columbus, in Hope, Indiana, and in some of the rural areas of the county and I was frequently with him when he traveled throughout southern Indiana but overall quite a modest participatory role.
SCARPINO: Did you learn anything from that campaign that influenced the way you ran your own campaign in 1962?
HAMILTON: Well, I learned a lot from it because I was with him a lot and I saw the types of things you had to do to get elected and the energy you had to expend. Birch would begin very early in the morning often with a plant gate visit and keep going right through 10, 11 o’clock in the evening. So he was campaigning 18 hours a day and that set an example for me.
SCARPINO: I’ll say for the record that Carol Madison just walked in. How would you assess Birch Bayh as a leader?
HAMILTON: Well, I assess him first of all as a legislator. He probably is the member of Congress who’s responsible for more of the United States Constitution than any member of Congress since James Madison because he was the chief sponsor of several U.S. constitution amendments. Now most members of Congress have absolutely no involvement in a constitutional amendment. We deal with statutes not amendments to the constitution. So his legislative record is quite remarkable and puts him in a kind of a hall of fame I guess with legislators because of his achievements. I don’t think I know of another member of Congress who sponsored amendments to the constitution. He not only sponsored but he got it through. (laughing)
SCARPINO: So we can have it in one place, which amendments did he sponsor?
HAMILTON: I, well one was the 21-year old vote. Second was the presidential succession. There may have been a third. I’m not sure.
SCARPINO: So I’ll go back to the question I started with. How would you assess his leadership qualities?
HAMILTON: Well leadership qualities were, I think, remarkable. He was the youngest Speaker of the Indiana House ever. He had a very winning personality. Had his own points of views but he certainly had unusual interpersonal skills in working with people of different viewpoints within the Indiana General Assembly or the United States Senate. I don’t know people who, I don’t think I ran into people who did not like Birch Bayh. They may have disagreed with him, may have disagreed strongly with him, but they had no sense of meanness of spirit. They recognized that he’s a very nice fellow and that he was genuinely trying to get a result. He was trying to make the government work and I think people sensed that. But his interpersonal skills are legendary. He used to go to French Lick every August for the Democratic gathering and there’d be a line of 100 to 150 women lined up to get his picture, their picture taken with Birch with his arm around them and he was enormously popular with women, young enough to be very attractive to the young people, and quite an exceptional personality.
SCARPINO: So what happened at those Democratic gatherings at French Lick?
HAMILTON: Oh that was the gathering of the faithful. We turned around and slapped each other on the back and encourage one another and there you often saw the party oratory and it becomes a kind of an oratorical contest in a way with all of the leading political figures giving speeches. Lot of fun.
SCARPINO: Why do you think that he lost, that Birch Bayh lost to Dan Quayle in 1980?
HAMILTON: I think his voting record was consistently liberal and the State of Indiana tends to be moderate to conservative. See he lost in 19 what?
HAMILTON: I don’t think the trends were favorable for him that year. He had been in three terms which meant that he had quite a record. You were launching upon a period when money raising was hugely important—has become even more important of course—and I don’t, I think he got outspent, as I recall, very substantially. I do not recall the issues of that campaign but if I reviewed it it might refresh my recollection.
SCARPINO: How would you assess his opponent as a leader or the leadership qualities of his opponent?
HAMILTON: Dan Quayle had been in the Congress for a few years. Had movie star good looks and likewise was a very personable gentleman. But there was a very stark contrast between conservative and liberal and when you have that contrast in Indiana you can pretty well bet on a conservative. Not always but unless, the trends have to be just right for the Democrat to win.
SCARPINO: Well he, the trends were just right for him for a few elections.
HAMILTON: They were right for him for three elections and that’s quite remarkable because Indiana has had an overwhelming preponderance of Republican Senators.
SCARPINO: In 1964 you defeated Republican Earl Wilson as part of a Democratic landslide which also brought Lyndon Johnson into the White House. In the last interview you describe Congress as a captivating career. What made it captivating?
HAMILTON: A what?
SCARPINO: You described your career in Congress as a captivating career.
SCARPINO: What made it captivating?
HAMILTON: Well you’re right in the middle of the action and you have a sense of being a bit player if you would in dealing with the most important issues in the country and in the world. So you can’t help but be interested in it. I mean (laughing) it’s a, I think another thing that attracted me a great deal to the position was that I think a member of Congress is one of the few generalists left today. It’s a age of such specialization. People develop very great skills in fairly narrow areas in order to be successful. In the Congress you’re dealing with issues of great complexity and great, with great rapidity and in all topics you can imagine—from agriculture to atomic energy, from war to drug making, pharmaceuticals. And the variety of the subject matter that comes before you as a member of Congress is about as stimulating as anything I know intellectually. It makes you delve into field after field after field, area after area, that you know relatively little about, and try to make discriminating judgments about policy.
SCARPINO: What did you find to be most captivating? What really grabbed your attention while you were a member of Congress?
HAMILTON: Well on a substantive level, foreign policy was the area that captivated me most—national security, intelligence. On a personal level it’s, I should say on a political level, what is captivating is how you build a consensus. The job of the Congress basically, fundamentally, is to build a consensus behind a solution. And this is a very big country, enormously different variety in all sorts of ways—130 million people in the country when I graduated from high school, when I left the Congress over 300 million. So in my working lifetime the country had far more than doubled and the issues that would come before you were so very different. I remember sitting one time with the Speaker of the House, Carl Albert, and he was trying to decide as Speaker what bills to bring forward right at the end of a session—that’s one of the great powers of the Speaker—and he turned to me and said—we were looking at a list of 15 or 20 possible bills—and he said the interesting thing about this list Lee is that well over half of them were never on the Congressional Agenda five years ago and now this was back in the seventies. So you get all of the new issues that keep coming at you and they are issues that eventually come to the Congress and make it an enormously exciting, challenging place.
SCARPINO: One of the things that I want to talk to you about today is people you knew in Congress and you just mentioned Carl Albert. How would you assess Speaker Albert as a leader?
HAMILTON: Speaker Albert was an immensely talented man, as good a stump speaker as I’ve ever seen, not very large in stature physically, terribly bright, a Rhodes Scholar, wanted all of his life to be Speaker, finally became Speaker, and I don’t really think he knew what to do with the job. He did not have a clear vision. Now in his defense he was confronted with a Democratic Party that was moderate to liberal for the most part but the more senior members like Howard Smith, in Virginia, were very, very conservative, more conservative than the Republicans. So he had a tough job of leadership and he does not go down, I think, as one of the great Speakers but whether or not you go down as a great Speaker depends on circumstances almost as much as it does your personal qualities as a leader. Carl Albert was very popular personally, worked very hard, was very diligent, and I don’t think there was a brighter man in the Congress than Carl Albert.
SCARPINO: When I talked to you last time one of the things that you said was you generally liked most members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
HAMILTON: Yes, I did, yeah.
SCARPINO: And you also, I just copied some phrases out of the last interview. You talked about searching for common view, identifying areas of disagreement, looking for ways to bridge disagreements, and you talked about, you said what was hard was bringing people together.
SCARPINO: So, can you tell us about a time when you felt particularly successful as a consensus builder?
HAMILTON: I don’t know that I think of it in personal terms so much. Any major piece of legislation is a remarkable success given the variety in the Congress today and I don’t know that my skills are any better than anybody else’s. One of the interesting things about this is that the voter doesn’t seem to care about whether you have political skills. They may care about how you stand on this issue or that, that’s perfectly okay of course, but I can’t remember a single person ever questioning me about my ability as a politician to bring people together and yet it’s the core, it’s the essence of a legislator’s duty.
SCARPINO: Do you think that in order to be a successful leader as a legislator that you have to have that capacity to bring people together?
HAMILTON: Yes, I do, if you put the emphasis on the word legislator. There are members of Congress who really are not legislators who kind of pass through the “word inaudible” who may be interested in policy but they’re not interested in the nuts and bolts of putting legislation together. John F. Kennedy is in that category. John F. Kennedy was, compare John F. Kennedy to Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy was a legislator. John F. Kennedy was not. He wasn’t much interested in the Senate to be blunt about it. I may be overstating it a little bit but his legislative production was very slim if any. He was interested in running for president. You have what we call inside players and outside players in the Congress. I think the Congress probably needs both. The people that really make it work are the inside players, the people who draft legislation. That’s very tedious work. It sounds quite romantic in some ways but it’s very hard, tedious work, line-by-line kind of work. That kind of member of Congress is very valuable but so also is the member of Congress who seeks to appeal to public opinion. In other words, is really speaking beyond the Congress. Both are needed in the institution.
SCARPINO: Do you think that in general, Congress today puts the same emphasis on consensus building that you did?
SCARPINO: What do you think has happened?
HAMILTON: Well the politics of the country have become much more intense and much more divisive. Our country’s evenly divided politically but the factor that has impressed me so much is the intensity of our politics. What do I mean by that? Well, more groups, more sophistication in their views, more money, more energy. Let me give you a simple example. When I went to the Congress we had three or four groups that took an interest in the agriculture bill—Farmer’s Union, Farm Bureau, The Grange and maybe two or three others. So if you’re going to build an agriculture bill you sat down with those leaders and you put the bill together. Now today if you’re putting an agriculture bill together you’ve got to deal with 40 or 50 groups, many of whom have very little to do with agriculture—school nutrition, food stamps. You don’t have a farm bureau representing a whole bunch of farmers. You have the corn growers, you have the soy bean growers, you have the beef people, the cattle people, dairy people. My last year in Congress I was lobbied by the macadamia nut people. In other words they had formed their own group.
SCARPINO: I have to admit I didn’t know there were macadamia nut people (laughter).
HAMILTON: Not too many people know about that lobbying group. I didn’t know about it until they walked in my office. But that just shows you how the agriculture is broken down. Now that’s part of it. The other part is this factor, money is a huge player in politics today and it drives a lot of the process. Why? Well, because corporations and others have figured out that if they can get a comma changes or a phrase changed they can, it’s a matter of billions of dollars to them. There’s just such enormous money at stake in the legislation that is being drafted and so you pay a lobbyist a million dollars a year and everybody says my gosh that’s an outrageous sum to pay a lobbyist but if that lobbyist can make a change in a treasury regulation or in a statute that benefits the company he’s working for they may make billions of dollars off of it. Why do American CEOs spend their time walking around the halls of the Congress? Why does Wall Street come down to Congress day after day after day? That’s where the money is. That’s where the action is.
SCARPINO: You know last night as I was one last time thinking through the questions that I was going to ask you today and one of the things that occurred to me was that you were a relatively new congressional representative in one of the most divisive periods in American history—the conflict over Vietnam, Watergate, environmental movement, and so on and so forth, the Saturday Night Massacre, all of those things. I mean there were certainly deep divisions within the country and yet you also said that you, you talked about consensus building and about liking the other members of Congress. What’s happened between then and now?
HAMILTON: Well I think one, probably many things. Members of Congress do not know one another as well as we did back several decades ago. The amenities are very important and it’s hard to get mad at somebody if you know them well. Today members of Congress really do not know each other all that well. They’re just too busy and they come into town Tuesday night, they leave Thursday night or come in Monday night maybe. Most of their families no longer come to Washington. They stay in their home areas and so we’ve lost a lot in terms of the collegiality, cordiality that marked the Congress of an earlier day and I don’t know whether we’ll get it back or not. I’m just not sure about that. Let me, I’ll give you another example. I’ve sat in on a lot of meetings. I’ll use some names here—Tip O’Neil was speaker, Bob Michael was minority leader—and Tip would say “words inaudible” you want to bring up this bill? I’ll call it Bill X. I’ve got 200 votes for it. I need 218. He turns to Bob Michael who’s the Republican leader and said what do you think of that bill and Bob says we don’t like it and Tip will say how many votes will I get from the Republicans? Bob said I don’t know but I’ll go check. He’d come back and he’d say okay Mr. Speaker we’re going to give you 10 votes. So the Speaker’s got to find eight. But the whole discussion between the two leaders—and this is the point—was very courteous, very direct. They were tacticians. They were legislators dealing with a problem. Okay, Tip would decide to bring the bill out. He’d go into the well. He’d giving a ringing speech for it. Bob Michael would give a ringing speech against it with passion. Both of them would speak with great passion. They knew how the bill was going to come out. They knew what the vote was going to be. Afterwards they’d go play golf. I’ve seen that many times. I was on the floor one time in the Senate. Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater were going at each other tooth and nail on the floor of the Senate—a great liberal, a great conservative—and after they’d finish the debate they’d sit down and have a drink together. That’s hard to find today and that’s important. Now another thing that’s contributed to the divisiveness is the media. The media likes to accentuate differences. The media doesn’t have patience for the politician who’s trying to build a consensus. They like to show the public the starkness and the differences. So that’s a contributing factor. Money’s a big factor. Money is given to get results and you get two streams of money coming in here, it can intensify the battle quite a bit. And of course people today engage a lot more than they used to. You have hundreds, thousands of people coming into Washington every year. Almost, well not all of them but many of them are there to lobby in effect. You didn’t see that before but it’s. . . When I first ran for Congress if I would go around talking to people what you would hear over and over again was get the government off my back. Today everybody goes to Washington to get what they want. Now that is a huge difference in the attitude of people. And you have all of these, well all interest groups are trying to get federal money or maybe a drafting of a regulation or something but it’s basically in the end. . .
SCARPINO: But at the same time there’s still, there’s a huge get the government off my back movement. Is there any tension there?
HAMILTON: Well I’m not sure that it is, they don’t like the government but when the problem develops where do they go? They go to government. How are you going to deal with terrorism? What are you going to do about improving the quality of education in the country? I’m not, it may not just be the federal government but what do you do to get more jobs in the country? People may say I don’t like government but they end up looking to government for a solution to the problem. You’re not going to solve the problem of terrorism with the Boy Scouts. I had a speech given just the other day by a president of one of the major corporations in America, a name very familiar to you. And he gave a really marvelous speech which had a strong anti-government flavor to it but every single thing that he wanted—better education, freer trade, balanced budget, on down the line—he had to go to government to get it.
SCARPINO: How are we going to solve the problem of terrorism?
HAMILTON: Well, terrorism is a multi-faceted phenomenon and you have to deal with it at a lot of different levels. You have to win wars—Iraq and Afghanistan. You have to protect the homeland. That involves a multitude of things. And you have to win hearts and minds. You will not win the war on terror unless you achieve the latter.
SCARPINO: And the hearts and minds of?
HAMILTON: The Islamic world and more specifically the radical Islamic world. And now, to some degree—I said it’s a multi-faceted phenomenon—the hardcore radical extremist, you’re not going to win him over. He wants to kill you and his ideology is such that he’s never going to buy into the market economy or the democratic process. You have to remove them. Remove is a euphemism. You kill them.
SCARPINO: Right. I understand.
HAMILTON: Or you capture them. But the very vast number of Muslims—1.4 billion from London to “word inaudible”—we have a real image problem with those folks. The United States registers less than 10% approval in almost all those countries where you have a heavy Islamic population. So one of the great challenges of American foreign policy in this century will be how do we get this relationship with the Islamic world into better order and we’ve got a long way to go. But that’s a major part of it but we focus a lot more of course in the shorter term on drones trying to remove them and winning wars and protecting ourselves, all of which are part of it. The key to fighting terrorism, if you want a single key, you’ve got to have more but is probably intelligence. Improving your intelligence to the point where you know more about them.
SCARPINO: How do you think the United States has done on that score?
HAMILTON: Well not bad. We haven’t had anybody attacking us successfully since 9/11.
SCARPINO: Is that a result of good intelligence or did we just get lucky?
HAMILTON: I don’t think we know the honest answer is but probably both and more. I think a lot of the things we have done has made the country safer. I think we’re much better at protecting the homeland than we were September 10, 2001. We have clearly been successful in causing disarray in the leadership of Al Qaeda for example. But having said that they’re still out to get us and at some point they’ll probably succeed.
SCARPINO: What do you think we have done to make the country safer than it was on September 10th?
HAMILTON: Well, we check on you pretty carefully when you get on the airplane. We have spent billions of dollars of security devices. There aren’t too many public buildings you go in today that are not protected, the electronic monitors and the like. We have a vast, we’ve created a whole new department of government, the Department of Homeland Security, that does all sorts of many, many things. We’re fighting a couple of wars. We’re learning our intelligence. We’re learning more and more about these people. Now, you’re not dealing with a static target. They’re changing all the time. So whereas a few years ago we might have been focused in Al Qaeda trying to pull off another 9/11, we can’t ignore that today but the more likely thing is they’ll try to bomb the New York subway. Or you have the phenomenon of the lone wolf, the home grown terrorist which we are becoming more and more focused on because our adversaries are trying to recruit English speakers, natives, who are disaffective in the country. So the target changes.
SCARPINO: I couldn’t resist asking you those questions because of your service on the 9/11 Commission.
SCARPINO: But I’m going to step back now into the Johnson years and the 1960s. You came to Congress at a pretty exciting time.
HAMILTON: I did.
SCARPINO: The Johnson Landslide and the Great Society.
HAMILTON: It takes a lot of luck in politics and I sure had it. 1964. Any Democrat. . .
SCARPINO: Well you got lucky for 34 years though. That’s not just luck. (laughing)
HAMILTON: In 1964 any fool on the Democratic ticket could get elected and several did.
SCARPINO: Well I was in Texas when Phil Graham got elected and I don’t think he expected to win to be honest with you. (laughter) I don’t think he expected to win.
HAMILTON: Well I think there is a lot of luck in politics and politicians generally don’t acknowledge it. Johnson had a lot of luck. He also married right because she had a lot of money. But luck plays a big role in politics. Now once you get into the Congress you have a lot of advantages and it’s pretty hard to lose an election once you get in Congress.
SCARPINO: You were there for Medicare, changes in federal aid to education, war on poverty, voting rights act, civil rights act, Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
HAMILTON: No, not the latter.
SCARPINO: You were not there?
HAMILTON: That was in 1964.
SCARPINO: Oh, that’s right. Thank you. Sorry about that. Medicare. How in the world did that make its way through Congress?
HAMILTON: Well, I would argue that 1965 was the most productive year of the Congress in modern American history and though the Great Society is much maligned it’s not repeatable. You still have, the laws we put into effect in 1965 you named them, several of them, are basically the law of the land today. Now they’ve been amended. They’ve been changed to some degree but they’re fundamentally intact. After, you know, Medicare had been debated in the country for several years. Kennedy favored it. And the thing that really pushed Medicare across was Kennedy’s assassination. There developed a sympathy for Johnson and Johnson was, among our presidents, among the most skillful in dealing with the Congress without much doubt and he had enormous momentum behind him. And he came in to the presidency with a clear agenda. Medicare, federal aid to education were probably the two big ones, foreign policy maybe a third one. And that was the debate between him and Goldwater and of course he smashed Goldwater. So his mandate as he saw it was to get enacted what he’d been talking about during the campaign and he did.
SCARPINO: Can you talk a little bit about the opposition to Medicare?
HAMILTON: Well it was pretty intense.
SCARPINO: And what were the grounds of the “word inaudible”?
HAMILTON: Socialism and the government takeover of health care. The same arguments you hear with regard to the health bill that just passed, the rhetoric is very much the same and I, the difference was that the Republicans in the House did not take the position the Republicans are today of just saying no. They worked with us, they developed some alternatives, and in the House, for example, we voted down the Republican alternative to Medicare which was I don’t know how to describe it, perhaps somewhat more modest that the Medicare proposal but still involved a lot of government medicine. And then we voted our bill and my recollection is we got a large number of Republican votes—not a majority—but a large number on the final passage of the bill.
SCARPINO: What do you think is the difference between Medicare then and health care now?
HAMILTON: The whole country’s changed in so many ways and the divisiveness we mentioned was certainly part of it. So, you had at that time more Republicans that I would identify as centerists than you do today. What’s happened in our politics today is that the Democratic Party has become more liberal probably, the Republican Party more conservative because of the way districts are drawn and media and other factors and the great question in American politics today is what’s happened to the center and the center has been come less visible, less strong in the Congress.
SCARPINO: What do think has happened to the center?
HAMILTON: Pretty well disappeared.
HAMILTON: Because part of it is the way congressional districts are drawn. With the computer today you, if you have a house with a man and a woman, spouses or different parties, the computer will split the house.
HAMILTON: I mean it’s that sophisticated. What that means is you get more Democrats in the district and more Republicans in the other district. That means that the representative wins the race by appealing to the core constituency, the hardcore Republicans or the hardcore Democrats. They tend to be more liberal or more conservative than the general mill and you get elected more by appealing to the extremes than you do by appealing to the center and you vote that way. That’s one factor. I think the media is another factor. I think the intensity is another factor. Money, all these factors come together.
SCARPINO: Do you think that those factors—appealing to the extremes, the media, money, have changed the qualities of leadership that are necessary to be successful?
HAMILTON: Yes. If you look at the leaders of the House today they are basically people who have come up by being successful money raisers and I’m not sure I’d say that about the Senate but any senator is a pretty good money raiser. You can’t run for the Senate without raising a lot of money. So I think money raising has become an obsession with candidates. If you sit down today for lunch with members of Congress—I do that occasionally—and the conversation’s always money. Where do I get the money? If you visit Capital Hill at 10 o’clock in the morning on a week day you’ll have a hard time finding representatives because they’re all over at the Republican or the Democratic National Headquarters making telephone calls all day long, rather all morning long.
SCARPINO: If I did the math right, you ran again in 1966.
SCARPINO: And you came back to the 9th District having voted on Medicare, federal aid to education, various parts of the war on poverty, and I’ll talk about it in a minute but we can throw the voting rights act and the civil rights act into that mix. How did you sell that to the voters of the 9th District?
HAMILTON: Well, the charge against me was I was a rubber stamp for Lyndon Johnson and so that’s what I had to contend with. One of the things that saved me in that earlier race was that I had written a letter to Johnson at the end of 1965, very brief letter, in which I said, the key phrase was it’s time to pause. The national media picked that up. Front page story on it in the Wall Street Journal and so forth. And that enabled me to establish with my constituency a view that I was willing to take the president on and tell him to slow down—too much coming too quickly—I think it helped a lot. Then the other side of it is I came back every single weekend (laughter) and spent my life on the airplane.
SCARPINO: Did they have frequent flyer miles in those days?
HAMILTON: No they didn’t. (laughter) No they did not. But, you know, it’s a rural area, 20-some counties and I just had to spend an enormous amount of time moving around.
SCARPINO: I’m going to skip ahead because. . .
HAMILTON: Yeah, we’re moving towards, yeah.
SCARPINO: Yeah, we’ve got 15 minutes or so?
SCARPINO: Okay. I actually, I’m driving to Muncie too. You were Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 1985 to 1987 during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. First of all how did you get that appointment? How did you end up there?
HAMILTON: Well I came up the chairs with my seniority to become chairman although you are only appointed to the Intelligence Committee for six years at a time. So I had been appointed and then served four years and they made me chairman then you go off. So I basically the answer is I was selected by the Speaker.
SCARPINO: How would you assess Ronald Reagan as a leader?
HAMILTON: Well he obviously had some very engaging qualities and the American people responded to them. He certainly was not a detail man. I’ve gone into the Oval Office a number of times with Reagan when he hardly said a word. He did not even know members of Congress well. He’s the only president I’ve ever known who would not go around the Cabinet room shaking hands with everybody in the meeting. He’d just come in and sit down and start the meeting. He’d always have a 3 by 5 card in front of him. Thank you very much for coming. He’d give you the topic and then he’d turn it over to the Cabinet member. He was once removed. He was totally unlike say a Bill Clinton who’s immersed in every detail of everything and Obama to some degree. But he had qualities that appealed to the American people a great deal. One of the interesting phenomenon with Reagan, I experienced it several times, is I would take people to a speech that Reagan was giving—Indiana constituents who happened to be in town—and they’d go to the hotel and be 3500 people or something and they invariably would come away disappointed because they had heard about Reagan as the great communicator and they were sitting in a large audience and he never spoke to the audience. He always spoke to the camera and that’s the big “word inaudible” (laughter) and he understood that. So I observed that phenomenon several times before I had it figured out. I was with him several times before he gave his State of the Union address. He’d always gargle hot water which is very good, that’s an actor’s trick actually, so you (throat clearing sound) clear your throat you know.
SCARPINO: Do you do that?
HAMILTON: Well. If the hot water’s there I do it but the places I speak you don’t usually have that opportunity.
HAMILTON: So you don’t have to clear your throat. But what he was interested in knowing is where the cameras were. So the acting background helped him a lot. I was not a great admirer of Reagan just because I didn’t think he had a very firm grasp of policy but generally considered, I think, a successful president by the American people.
SCARPINO: Why do you think that is?
HAMILTON: Luck, part of it and maybe skill too. But look, he was a president who was presiding when the Soviet Union fell and. . .
SCARPINO: Mr. Gorbachev tear that wall down “words inaudible.”
HAMILTON: Yeah. Now he, that’s an interesting comment because the week that he gave the speech—tear down this wall Mr. Gorbachev—he sent negotiators to Moscow to negotiate. The impression he gives to the American people is how tough he is on the Soviet Union. In fact, and this is his political skill, he’s negotiating with them. But he presided when the Soviet Union fell. Now, the interesting thing about this historically, and I’ve talked with Mr. Gorbachev about this, is that the argument that Reagan and his colleagues made was we got to spend a lot more money on defense because the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. That was their basic argument. In fact, what was happening is the Soviet Union was falling apart.
SCARPINO: Did he know that?
HAMILTON: He, well I’m sure he didn’t but now if you talk to a Reagan supporter today and certainly a former Cabinet member, they will say that Reagan called for large defense budgets because he wanted to bring about the crumbling of the Soviet Union. That wasn’t the argument they made. The argument they made is the Russians are coming. That’s a very different argument. So they have had a kind of a post-facto change in the argument. But having, you know, that’s a kind of a detail in effect. The fact of the matter is he was President when the Soviet Union fell and I think he gets a lot of credit for that. I said I had talked to Gorbachev about it. I said, I asked Mr. Gorbachev, I said did you, did the Soviet Union come about, collapse, because of what we did. He said no. He said the Soviet Union collapsed because of the internal problems of Communism. I think historians are lining up more now with Gorbachev than they are Reagan.
SCARPINO: What did he think the internal problems of Communism were?
HAMILTON: Oh, well, just stultifying bureaucracy, corruption, lack of incentives, all kinds of things.
SCARPINO: Do you think politics in the United States changed once the Soviets weren’t coming any more? Once the threat went away?
HAMILTON: Well we have a politics in this country on national security matters that kind of demands you have an enemy and maybe we do. I mean if, when Communism collapsed we were searching and we found, of course, enemies. We have been in a state of war in this country for decades when you stop to think about it. We are almost always fighting a war. If you go back to World War II we have intervened militarily—don’t hold me to this figure—but once every few years and some of those interventions have been very brief—Grenada. Some of them have been very long—Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. But the fact of the matter is we basically in the country have come to accept being on a war footing as part of our lives and that’s quite a change.
SCARPINO: I looked up the House Intelligence Committee. . .
HAMILTON: You can’t be interested in all of this can you?
SCARPINO: Oh, no, no. (laughter) I’m going to read a list here for the record. I looked up the House Intelligence Committee last night just to see that it oversees all or part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Department of State, National Security Administration. The list goes on and on. How in the world did you manage to exercise leadership on a position like that?
HAMILTON: You really oversee only the intelligence operations.
SCARPINO: Right, right.
HAMILTON: Now that’s still a big deal. Our intelligence budget today is $50 billion a year. When I was chairman it was about 10 billion. You were asking me, you know we were talking about the changes that occurred because of terrorism. This is one of them. The intelligence budgets have just exploded in the last 10, 20 years.
SCARPINO: Was 9/11 a failure of intelligence?
HAMILTON: Oh, yes. Sure.
SCARPINO: In what ways?
HAMILTON: Why we didn’t know it was coming. I mean the job of the intelligence community is to let you know what threats you’re confronted with and we clearly missed it. It was a big failure.
SCARPINO: If I did the math right you were with the House Intelligence Committee during the Iran-Contra Affair. Is that right?
HAMILTON: Oh, boy. I guess that’s right, yeah. Is that right? I was one of the chairmen of the Iran-Contra investigation. Jim Wright appointed me to that position and I guess I was intelligence, on the Intelligence Committee.
SCARPINO: How would you assess the significance of that event?
HAMILTON: Well it was the biggest failure of the Reagan administration but he recovered from it. It had a profound impact along with Vietnam and Watergate in souring the American people on government and so it’s a major event in our history. One of several that occurred over a period of decades. We, I was very heavily criticized from the liberal side in Iran-Contra.
SCARPINO: Why was that?
HAMILTON: Because we didn’t impeach Reagan or didn’t recommend his impeachment. The liberals were furious at me on that. Now the reason we didn’t is because we didn’t have the evidence but of course you didn’t need the evidence to persuade the liberals. They wanted to hang him. And not literally. . .
SCARPINO: No, I know.
HAMILTON: Don’t mean literally but figuratively.
SCARPINO: I will say for the record that’s a figure of speech. (laughter)
HAMILTON: You don’t, look impeaching and convicting a president is a very serious business and you certainly don’t want to do it unless you have overwhelming evidence and we didn’t have it.
SCARPINO: So how would you then compare the effort to impeach Bill Clinton for his personal indiscretions as opposed to the decision not to impeach Ronald Reagan for Iran-Contra?
HAMILTON: Well Bill Clinton was impeached and he was impeached for lying and personal conduct basically. He was not convicted. In the Reagan case we had all kinds of evidence of people who misbehaved, malfeasance, below him—McFarland, Poindexter.
SCARPINO: Oliver North?
HAMILTON: North and even some of the Cabinet people. But we didn’t have that evidence of Reagan himself and but either by design or by fact Reagan kept his distance from those things and they kept distance from him. So what we were never able to pin down was what did Ronald Reagan really know. What we said was he should have known and so we were very critical of Reagan but we did not think you impeach somebody on the basis of what they should have known. That’s kind of the core of it.
SCARPINO: How do you think Ronald Reagan handled that crisis as a political leader?
HAMILTON: Well not very well during it but obviously he recovered from it and that’s maybe the real skill that he showed. His presidency was teetering on the brink during Iran-Contra. He was very close to having to step down. We didn’t, I didn’t want that to happen. I did not think that was good for the country even though I, as I’ve indicated, I was not a great admirer of Ronald Reagan and I certainly didn’t think we had the hard evidence of his personal involvement.
SCARPINO: I’m noticing that it’s time to wrap this up and so there’s one question and this is a little bit facetious but I’ve been dying to ask you this.
SCARPINO: As a young man you were a basketball player?
SCARPINO: Do you ever wish that you could shoot hoops with the current president?
SCARPINO: No. (laughter)
HAMILTON: Well I can no longer play basketball. My legs won’t hold up. He’s a pretty good basketball player.
SCARPINO: Yes he is.
HAMILTON: And there in the campaign in Indiana he visited the Hall of Fame. Where is that in. . .
SCARPINO: New Castle.
HAMILTON: On my recommendation. Good PR and he came out and they asked him what impressed you about the Indiana Hall of Fame and he said what impressed me is that Hamilton’s a member of it. (laughter)
SCARPINO: So what do you think of Barack Obama as a leader?
HAMILTON: Well, he, I’m biased obviously, but his and the quick answer is it’s a work in progress. If you look on the domestic side, if you look at his achievements—stimulus package, health care bill, I’ll put down financial regulatory reform, we’re not there yet but it looks like they’ll get something out of that, and then there are a number of lesser things—it’s not a bad record. It’s a pretty solid record of accomplishments and he certainly has failed to bring the country together. He certainly has not succeeded in diminishing the excessive partisanship and on the foreign policy side, if you, he was confronted with an array of problems which I think were probably as difficult as any American president has confronted when they come into office. You cannot say that he’s made progress on any of them, dramatic progress—Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran still has or almost building the bomb, Korea’s got the bomb, Middle East peace process at an impasse and so on—so you look through all of these problems. One of the things he’s learned is the intractability of foreign policy issues. On the positive side he has changed the image of America. He would argue and this remains to be seen but that he has laid the foundation for progress against Iran and North Korea and so forth. He’s changed the terms of engagement for the United States. Now in very recent weeks he has concluded a START agreement with the Russians. He had the conference in Washington where they agreed upon steps to take to deal with the loose nuke problem. He confronts here in two or three weeks the nonproliferation conference in New York. So you can say that he’s picked up some momentum at this point. You cannot say that he’s solved these problems (laughing) for sure. But, so the honest assessment would be it’s a work in progress.
SCARPINO: And we’ll leave it there. Thank you, on behalf of the Tobias Center, thank you very much for sitting with us this morning.
HAMILTON: You bet. Good to see you. Thanks.