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.