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Congress, Presidents, and American Politics: Fifty Years of Writings and Reflections

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When Lee H. Hamilton joined Congress in 1965 as a US Representative from southern Indiana, he began writing commentaries for his constituents describing his experiences, impressions, and developing views of what was right and wrong in American politics. He continued to write regularly throughout his 34 years in office and up to the present. Lively and full of his distinctive insights, Hamilton’s essays provide vivid accounts of national milestones over the past fifty years: from the protests of the Sixties, the Vietnam War, and the Great Society reforms, through the Watergate and Iran-Contra affairs, to the post-9/11 years as the vice chairman of the 9/11 commission. Hamilton offers frank and sometimes surprising reflections on Congress, the presidency, and presidential character from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. He argues that there are valuable lessons to be learned from past years, when Congress worked better than it does now. Offering history, politics, and personal reflections all at once, this book will appeal to everyone interested in understanding America of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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1. The Johnson Years (1965–68): A Remarkable Time to Begin in Congress

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THE NOVEMBER 1964 ELECTION THAT BROUGHT ME TO CONGRESS was also the Lyndon Johnson landslide over Barry Goldwater. The four years that I would serve in Congress during the Johnson years—in the 89th and 90th Congresses—were a memorable, tumultuous time.

Legislation came at us very quickly. I was sworn into office on January 4, 1965, and by April we had passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the first of sixty major bills we passed that Congress. President Johnson felt he had a clear mandate from the election, and he was poised to strike. Much of the legislation had been developed by President Kennedy, so Johnson had an agenda handed to him. And many of the major bills were fully aired and, to Johnson’s mind, fully settled during the campaign. So it was full speed ahead.

The 89th was a Congress in which the president clearly took the lead, and Johnson was relentless in pursuing his agenda and in his follow-up with Congress. He had great energy and focus, and a thorough knowledge of the institution and its members. He enjoyed the legislative process and had been involved in it for much of his life. He was constantly on the phone to members of Congress, making dozens of calls every day. Like other members I was cornered by Johnson on several occasions, his index finger poking against my chest as he told me why a bill needed to be passed. The question on his mind was always, How do I get your vote? Johnson was a dealmaker and he used the full powers of his office—which were considerable—to close the deal, whether it was promising a federal building or bridge for your district, offering you a trip overseas, or appointing someone you knew to an office. Anything he needed to do, he’d do.

 

2. The Nixon Years (1969–74): Accomplishments amid Turmoil

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MY PERSONAL TIE TO PRESIDENT NIXON WAS THROUGH HIS mother. She was born and raised near Butlerville, Indiana, and he knew I represented that part of the state. Every time I saw him he’d ask, “How are things in Butlerville?” He always spoke very highly of his mother, and his middle name—Milhous—was his mother’s maiden name.

He used to joke with me about Indiana. He would say that whenever he ran for president he would sit down with a yellow legal pad and mark two columns—one with an R and one with a D—to get a sense of the likely electoral count. His very first entry in the R column, he said with a smile, was always Indiana. He must have told me that story three or four times. He liked Indiana not just because of his mother’s background but also for its Republican leanings.

So once I invited him to come out to Butlerville. He was surprised by my invitation, and I was even more surprised when he accepted. So in June 1971, two years into his first term, President Nixon came out to rural southern Indiana. It was a quick visit—he was only in Indiana for part of the day—but it was a major event for people in that part of the state. He flew into Indianapolis and then took a helicopter to North Vernon for his speech. His speech was fairly general, covering a range of topics, and he ended by saying, “Thank you for reminding me why my mother loved this land so much”—which was very well received. On the way back to Indianapolis he didn’t stop in Butlerville, but he did have his helicopter fly over the town. My time with the president that day was limited, but the visit clearly had an impact on him. It was an emotional trip for him, a homecoming of sorts.

 

3. The Ford Years (1974–76): A Needed Respite

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CONGRESS WAS OPTIMISTIC AS GERALD FORDS PRESIDENCY BEGAN. Our tough Watergate years were behind us, and in the White House we had a president who was widely liked and respected by both Republicans and Democrats. In his brief remarks to the nation after being sworn in, President Ford said, “Our long national nightmare is over,” and, “There is no way we can go forward except together.” His sensitive speech resonated in the country as well as in Congress.

In my commentary at that time I noted that the new president was expected to have an extended period of good relations with Congress, since—having previously served twenty-four years in the House—he was viewed as “one of ours” and was promising to “consult and compromise” with Congress. Yet two years later I was observing that “the 94th Congress and the president slugged it out for two years on economic issues with no clear winner,” and pointed to only modest legislative accomplishments. The Ford years turned out much differently than we expected in Congress. It was the reverse of the Nixon years, which had low initial expectations yet significant legislative accomplishments.

 

4. The Carter Years (1977–80): Intraparty Discord

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THE CARTER PRESIDENCY SHOWED THAT THERE IS A BIG difference between campaigning and governing, and between coming up with ideas and getting them through Congress.

Carter was a marvelous campaigner, and he struck just the right tone as the country was coming out of the Watergate years: lack of pretense, down-to-earth, a new kind of leader more attuned to average Americans, even to the point of carrying his own briefcase and luggage. He came across as someone with strong values, independent, an outsider, not your typical politician. He had a strong element of integrity about him.

Once elected, Carter was never comfortable with the political process of Washington. He had campaigned against it when running for president, emphasizing that he was not part of the system. But once he was there, it became clear that insider skills—like those possessed by Lyndon Johnson—are needed to make the system work and get proposals through Congress.

He liked to analyze issues carefully, thoroughly, and comprehensively with the highly organized mind of a nuclear engineer—which he was. But he was less skilled at working with Congress. He thought the strength of his ideas would carry the day, but the 535 members of Congress and especially the powerful committee chairmen, many of whom had decades of experience and expertise in working on major national and international issues, felt that they had much to say about the challenges facing the nation.

 

5. The Reagan Years (1981–88): Letting the Democratic Process Work

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WHEN RONALD REAGAN BECAME PRESIDENT THERE WAS SOME skepticism among Washington insiders about how well the administration of this actor and two-term governor would do. But historians looking back over the years give his presidency fairly high marks.

Reagan had strongly held conservative beliefs, but it always seemed to me that he was more pragmatic than is generally recognized. In his first inaugural address, he talked about government being the problem rather than the solution, but he signed every appropriations bill funding the government and he didn’t try to abolish any federal departments. Earlier in his career he had denounced Medicare as socialism, but as president he did not try to repeal it and instead tried to protect it. He called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” but he did not aggressively challenge it and shifted to a “trust, but verify” approach. He wanted steep reductions in income taxes, but realized that he went too far with his first tax bill and corrected course by supporting a large tax hike.

 

6. The George H. W. Bush Years (1989–92): A New World Order

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I KNEW GEORGE H. W. BUSH WELL FOR SEVERAL YEARS, GOING BACK to the time when we both served in the House of Representatives in the late 1960s. He was a decent, honorable, positive person.

And, I might add, enjoyable to be around. I remember a relaxing Christmas Day I was spending at home with my family. We had just finished our holiday dinner when a phone call from the president came through. He wished me and Nancy happy holidays and then asked whether I could meet him in a few minutes in the House of Representatives gym for some games of paddleball, which is not something you look forward to after a large meal. I hesitated, pointing out that the House gym would be locked on Christmas. But he said that would be no problem, he’d take care of it—and as leader of the free world that was something he was able to handle.

Bush excelled at making and maintaining friendships. When he first came to Congress in 1967, he was elected president of the House freshman class. Throughout all his years of public service he was known for writing personal notes, staying in touch. His engaging personality made him popular among members of Congress.

 

7. The Clinton Years (1993–2000): Opportunities Missed

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IN MY COMMENTARY AFTER THE 1992 ELECTIONS I LOOKED AHEAD with considerable anticipation to the Clinton years. For the first time in more than a decade, we no longer had a divided government at the federal level, with the Democrats now in control of the presidency as well as both houses of Congress. In addition, Clinton came across as someone who was moderate, willing to look for new ways of doing things, willing to rethink the role of government, and able to work with people of the other party. That, combined with public demands for change, gave me reason to think that “highly productive” days lay ahead. Despite my own optimism as well as the optimism of many others, Clinton’s presidency started out badly, the next eight years were a time of major ups and downs, and the overall results of the Clinton years were to me disappointing. There were important and impressive achievements, but much more could have been accomplished had the president not been distracted by his personal misconduct.

 

8. The George W. Bush Years (2001–2008): A Timid Congress

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BY THIS TIME I WAS WATCHING CONGRESS MORE FROM A DISTANCE—as head of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, and the Center on Congress at Indiana University—and I was still writing regular columns on Congress, representative democracy, and the importance of civic engagement.

I got to know President Bush primarily through my work on both the 9/11 Commission, which looked into the 9/11 attacks and recommended steps to guard against future attacks, and the Iraq Study Group, which was tasked with assessing the war in Iraq and making policy recommendations. In both cases the president was initially opposed to our work and hesitant to cooperate, feeling that our findings would be critical of his administration’s actions. So members of the two groups had to work hard over an extended period of time to establish our credibility with him. I felt he listened respectfully and wasn’t just going through the motions with us. In the end, he helped get many of our 9/11 recommendations approved by Congress, and the administration’s overly optimistic statements on progress in the war in Iraq became more realistic after our Iraq Study Group report was issued, with the president admitting for the first time that the situation in Iraq was “bad.”

 

9. The Obama Years (2009–14): Continuing Struggles

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WHEN BARACK OBAMA FIRST RAN FOR PRESIDENT IN 2008, I SUPported him in the Democratic primary in Indiana—I was one of the few current or former public officials in the state to do so—and it was his strong showing that day that made the media predict he would win the nomination over Hillary Clinton. So he was appreciative of my support. I liked his pragmatic, nonideological approach to the issues, and thought there would be a change—a new direction—with his administration. He had an idealism about him that inspired people, and I thought he would be able to energize young people, minorities, and others who had been outside the process to become more civically involved, something our country has needed for years.

During his first campaign I was on a panel to advise him on foreign-policy issues. Obama had been in the Senate for just a few years, and in the Illinois state legislature before that, so his foreign-policy credentials were thin. But in the meetings I found him to be a quick learner. He asked a lot of good questions and seemed to enjoy digging into the range of issues.

 

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