In 41 years in politics, Lee Hamilton must have made some enemies.
It’s just so darned hard to find them.
Thomas Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, didn’t know Hamilton before they joined to lead the investigation into the terrorist attacks on the United States.
The former Republican governor of New Jersey said all his friends in Congress told him: “This is one of the really decent men in Congress.”
“He’s one of the greatest Americans I know. I wish I could clone him,” he said.
Hamilton represented Indiana’s 9th District for 34 years. When the Democrats led the House, he rose to chairman of the International Relations Committee and chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
The last four years of his congressional career, Democrats were in the minority. “You have much less of a chance to influence policy or law,” he said.
Now 75, Hamilton may have more influence than he did when Democrats ruled the Hill. He was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and was selected to co-chair the Iraq Study Group, along with James Baker, who served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who has been in Congress for 26 years, said of Hamilton, “I think the 9/11 Commission made him much more prominent.”
Wolf said Hamilton did a good job with a tough task and that his work on the panel showed he’s “not obligated to anybody except to truth.”
John Lehman, who served as secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan and now heads a private equity investment firm, served on the 9/11 Commission. He admires Hamilton’s choices about his post-Congress life. “He could’ve been making a lot of money on boards, consulting, lobbying,” Lehman said. “But he’s stayed very much in the policy world.”
Hamilton is pleased that the organization of intelligence gathering was changed as the 9/11 Commission recommended, but hasn’t forgotten that most fire departments, police departments and sheriff’s departments still don’t have radios that can talk to one another. He observed that the latest Homeland Security Department list, on which Indiana had half again as many terrorist targets than New York, was “very strange.”
“Setting priorities is a very tough part of homeland security,” he said. “You ought not to distribute those funds on the basis of politics, but on the basis of vulnerability and risk.”
That still isn’t happening, he said.
The retired politician is hardly in the mushy middle. In a wide-ranging interview in his office at the Wilson Center for Scholars, he was deeply critical of the current Congress and of the administration’s handling of the Middle East crisis.
“Hezbollah made the initial attack here, and they should be condemned for that,” he said, and it’s understandable that Israel must defend itself. “The question is not: Is (Israel’s response) an overreaction? The question is: Is what Israel’s doing effective?”
He said the administration dawdled on seeking a cease-fire, with a policy he characterized as: “Let’s stop killing people _ but not right now.”
Meanwhile, the House has been wasting energy on political posturing, Hamilton noted.
“Look at the schedule this week in the House of Representatives,” he said, in a week when there were votes on a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, a proposal to prevent courts from removing “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and preserving a cross at a veterans’ memorial in Southern California.
Congress is not “addressing those questions which most fundamentally affect American people in their daily lives,” he said. He suggested that lawmakers should tackle health care, wage stagnation, loss of pensions and illegal immigration. Congress did pass a pension-reform bill, but Hamilton believes it may make things worse. The House and the Senate passed very different immigration-reform packages, and have not started to work on a compromise.
Wolf said that 50 members of Congress _ Democrats and Republicans _ agreed to convene an Iraq Study Group because lawmakers were struggling to find a way to unite on how to manage the war in Iraq. Hamilton said the group will not look back at how this country got into the war or critique the conduct of the war’s first three years. It also will not report before the November elections.
“We are where we are, whether you agree with it or not,” he said. “Our job is: Where do we go from here? Nobody can really argue today that things are going well,” he said. “The choices are not very good. You’re not beginning on a clear sheet of paper.”