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OPINION: Politicians take diverse roads to leadership

By Lee Hamilton

Date:

I wrote recently about international Leaders, world-changing figures Like Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev. Today, I want to give credit to women and men I worked with in the U.S. Congress. Some are well-known and some aren’t, but all served their constituents energetically.

Some were Democrats and some were Republicans. Some were conservative, some liberal. They had different styles and skill sets. With all their diversity, they were talented individuals. They showed that there are many roads to governing effectively.

Wilbur Mills, a lawyer from Arkansas and a long-time chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, was the House’s leading expert on taxes. Whenever he would step forward to speak about the tax code — to explain it, to defend it, to respond to criticism — members would listen carefully.

Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was a staunch opponent of civil-rights legislation who switched from the Democratic to the Republican party over the issue. My personal relationship with him was good, however. Once, after a meeting, he walked over and congratulated me on a statement I had made. That was typical. He had strong opinions but worked easily and effectively in an environment where people disagreed.

Edith Green, a former schoolteacher from Oregon, was a master of education legislation and a champion of women’s rights. She chaired House hearings that led to Title IX, the law that bans sex discrimination in education.

Lindy Boggs of Louisiana enjoyed admiration in the House. When Congress passed credit reform early in her tenure, she added a ban on discrimination by sex or marital status. She succeeded her husband, Hale Boggs, who died on a flight in Alaska. He had been majority leader and was among the best I ever saw at speaking extemporaneously. He could persuasively debate almost any issue.

Sens. Jacob Javits of New York and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota (the 1968 Democratic candidate for president), were famous for their legislative acumen. They debated smoothly, shifted from topic to topic, and moved between conference committees to put the pieces together.

Mike Mansfield of Montana had a hardscrabble childhood but became a successful politician and the longest-serving majority leader of the Senate. He was among the most popular men in the Senate. He was gracious and always insisted on fairness.

Tom Morgan, a physician from Pennsylvania, championed bipartisanship. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he was always in control of the agenda and completely unflappable, even when provoked by fellow Democrat Ron Dellums of California. Dellums was elected as an activist and a rhetorical flame-thrower, but over time he learned the system and made it work to get things done.

Across the aisle, Republican John Rhodes represented Arizona in the House and served as minority leader. He was courteous, always well prepared, slow to anger, and respected by members. He represented the best of the House in his conduct and actions.

Charlie Halleck, a Republican from my home state of Indiana, was both majority and minority leader during his 34 years in the House. A dedicated conservative who nevertheless supported civil-rights legislation, he was skilled at using the rules to advance legislation.

Of course, there was Democrat John McCormack of Massachusetts, the House speaker when I arrived. He was known for the phrase, “I hold the distinguished gentleman in minimum high regard.” He would say it often, including to me. In a kinder, gentler era, it was his way of gently rebuking colleagues.

I’ve described a Congress where members held strongly conflicting views but cooperated to get things done. Is that possible today? It’s hard for me to judge from a distance, but politicians are still politicians. Most run for office to accomplish certain goals, and the only way to do that is to work together.        


Lee Hamilton, 92, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana. 

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