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Reaching in, reaching out: Lee H. Hamilton, head of the Woodrow Wilson centre in Washington D.C., has won international acclaim for his work in foreign affairs ...

For tall, trim former US Congressman Lee H Hamilton the workday begins early--sometimes by 5.30 am. He parks his car, goes to the eighth floor of the majestic, sprawling Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC--three blocks from the White House--to his office as director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. There he begins the quiet reflection that became a habit during his 30-plus years as a Representative for southern Indiana in the US Congress. With the phones silent and no interruptions, he reads the morning newspapers and meditates. He checks his priorities and thinks ahead. `This is the most important time of day for me,' he says.

As chairman of the House Committee on International Relations and other powerful congressional panels, Hamilton built a reputation for his calm, analytical approach. The 1998 Almanac of American Politics said he had `a strong intellect and capacity for hard work plus a sense of moral imperative'. So it came as no surprise when President Bill Clinton dispatched him to Taipeh last March to help ease tensions between the newly elected pro-independence President of the Republic of China, Chen Shui-Bian, and Beijing.

`I met with Chen and conveyed a message of restraint,' Hamilton recalls. He was relieved to find Chen already conveying that message. So it was a short trip. It nevertheless symbolized the stature Hamilton had achieved in foreign policy circles. He was expected to be Secretary of State if Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis won the presidential election in 1988. Both Dukakis and Clinton considered him as a possible running mate. Hamilton says he withdrew his name as a Clinton vice-presidential prospect in 1992. He was also on Clinton's checklist for Secretary of State.

Hamilton was born in Florida in 1931, the son of a Methodist minister who led large churches in that state, Tennessee and Indiana. But how did the gaze of the young Hamilton, with roots in the Midwest and South, come to encompass the world?

It began with a trip abroad in 1952-53 when he studied briefly at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, but mostly toured the country. That experience fired his interest in international affairs. `There were many sites then still bombed out,' he recalls. He met men who'd been Hitler's bodyguards. He even played in Germany's national championship basketball team. The German `economic miracle' dazzled him. But he hungered to see more of Europe, so he and a friend made a low-budget tour, staying in youth hostels and surviving on one meal a day. `This was a vast new world.... The residue of war was an obsession everywhere.'

Hamilton had graduated with honours from DePauw University in 1952, but remained puzzled about what to do with his life. He flirted briefly with the ministry but `was not attracted'. `I considered coaching or getting a doctorate in history.' Finally, law students he met in Europe helped convince him to enter law school at Indiana University, where he received his jurisprudence doctorate in 1956. After brief work in Chicago, he joined a small law firm in Columbus, Indiana. But politics summoned and landed him in Congress in 1965 for the first of 17 two-year terms.

A member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, Hamilton devoted eight years to the sport--four in high school, four in college. `The coaches had a lot of impact on me,' he says. `The teamwork, the lessons from athletics are very important--the sportsmanship, the need to be highly disciplined. In basketball you are very dependent on your team mates.' Discipline, teamwork and fair play are qualities dear to him.

After Hamilton decided in 1998 not to run for re-election, he was flooded with job offers. He could doubtless have named his price if he'd wanted to become a lobbyist. But he accepted the invitation to head the Wilson Center. He checked out of his congressional office one day and into his new one the next.

The Wilson Center ranks as one of America's--indeed the world's--premier institutions of scholarly research and exchange of ideas among academics, lawmakers, journalists, government officials and other policy makers. It accepts 150 scholars annually from throughout the world. They research and write but also interact with each other and with elected officials, other public policy specialists and leading thinkers.

Near the end of his Wilson Center stay this year, Victor Avksentiev, Chairman of the Department of Social Philosophy and Ethnology at Stavropol State University in Russia, told me that his experience at the centre expanded his conception of the causes of inter-ethnic conflict. He had gained a better grasp of the role political leaders and other significant individuals play, and of the fact that such conflicts are often not inherent but stoked.

Former Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek said recently that his own time as a Wilson scholar in 1978, when he watched Congress work, gave him the stronger conception of democracy which he brought to Solidarity, the workers' movement that did so much to end the Communist system in his country.

Once home, many scholars write to tell Hamilton how deeply their experience affected them. Wilson alumni have regional associations to keep them linked and interactive.

Nazokat Kasymova, a lecturer in economics at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, told me as she was about to return home that she would share her greater grasp of democracy with her students.

Two hundred radio stations across America broadcast the Wilson Center programme, Dialogue, to 200,000 listeners. The Wilson Quarterly has more than 60,000 subscribers. The Wilson Center and Close Up Foundation have collaborated to bring policy-issue briefings to high schools with televised student forums on the C-Span national cable network.

Since Congress founded the Center in 1968 as a monument to the nation's 28th president, Wilson scholars have written more than 800 books and countless papers. Alumni include the historians Gertrude Himmelfarb and Edward Tenner, the writers Vassily Aksyono and Mario Vargas Llosa, the diplomats Madeleine Albright, Simcha Dinitz, George F Kennan and Anatolii Dobrynin, and the journalists Thomas L Friedman, John J Fialka and Rajmohan Gandhi.

Woodrow Wilson had been President of Princeton University before becoming President of the United States in 1913. `Wilson was our only President with a PhD,' notes Hamilton, who strongly believes that the interaction of public officials with scholars nurtures democracy.

For all the action he left on Capitol Hill, Hamilton delights in the `stimulation' of his new job. He also directs the Center on Congress which he initiated at Indiana University. That takes him back home twice a month. `There is a huge public lack of understanding of the role of Congress,' he says. With his radio commentaries and other outreach, the Center on Congress aims to serve `the kind of people who have breakfast at McDonalds', in Hamilton's words. It even has a web site on how bills become law. The site features a game that takes viewers through the maze.

Now almost 70, an age when many men are retired, Hamilton shows no sign of slowing down. But he often gets home earlier to his wife, Nancy, a talented painter whom he met at DePauw (they have three children and four grandchildren). `And I've discovered weekends,' he enthuses.

One incident tells a lot about him: `A few years ago, when I still represented southern Indiana in Congress, I was getting ready to take part in a small-town parade when a young woman--a teenager, actually--came running up and said she wanted to talk to me,' he recalled in a radio commentary. `She was so obviously distressed that I had my car pull over to the side and let the rest of the parade pass. Her parents, she said, were addicted to drugs, and she felt trapped. If she went to the police, her parents would be arrested, and she'd lose them. If she didn't report them, they would continue their abuse. It was a horrible dilemma, and I promised I would do what I could to help out.'

He said that encounter and a few others galvanized him `into a concerted effort to improve the availability of drug treatment and drug education activities in rural communities generally, and in southern Indiana in particular'. This experience drove deeper his conviction of the need for `ongoing conversation between elected officials and the people they represent'. Reaching out was a Hamilton hallmark.

Asked if he wouldn't rather have concentrated wholly on foreign affairs when in Congress, Hamilton responds with an emphatic `No'. He says he devoted about half his time to domestic issues, and loved meeting his constituents. To help a teenager in a family crisis, or a town get a needed fire truck, meant as much to him, perhaps, as winning a House vote.

His reputation nationally and internationally came, however, from his long experience in foreign affairs for which he has received many honours and awards, including, last year, the Knight Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He has also been showered with honours for his work on domestic issues and received four honorary degrees.

A defining moment for Hamilton came recently when at the end of an AIDS panel discussion at the Wilson Center he quoted from a Washington Post story that day which raised the question whether, finally, a change in human behaviour must come to control the spread of the disease. There is within him, to be sure, that `sense of moral imperative'.
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Publication:For A Change
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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