Much like the new moon on a cloudy night, political icons never really go away. Few still shine so brightly from behind the scenes as Lee Hamilton. Despite no longer being an elected representative, the former 9th District Indiana Congressman continues in his lifelong work toward making the American legislative process stronger, smarter and better. As the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, Hamilton strives to illuminate the electorate about government just as much as he hopes to engage every day folks in civic participation.
But before all the congressional votes had been cast and the foreign policy measures had even been devised, Hamilton was just a teenage boy growing up in the heartland. Moving had become commonplace during his early years. The son of a Methodist minister, he followed his father's ministry through Florida and Tennessee before the family settled in Evansville during his eighth-grade year.
A lot of politicians always knew they wanted a life in government service. Not Hamilton. His love of basketball outweighed almost every other pursuit, something common for Hoosier boys even today.
“My focus as a young person was very largely on basketball and athletics,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think I’d recommend that to the extent that I was very focused on basketball, more so than you probably should be.”
Even so, times were different back then in both basketball and in life. Locals found their Friday night entertainment in small town high school gyms. Communities bonded over the whoosh of the net. For three years, Hamilton recalled playing varsity ball to no less than a packed house.
“Athletics teaches you so many things. It gives you a community of like-minded people. It teaches you competitiveness, fair play and all the rest of it,” Hamilton said. “It’s a very valuable thing. I said I focused way too much on basketball and I did, but there are a lot things that would have been a lot worse to focus on, I’m sure of that.”
After the atrocities of World War II, happiness ran high. As Hamilton witnessed, the end of war brought with it a newfound hopefulness. Ordinary people thought collectively they could accomplish extraordinary things both on and off the court.
“Right after WWII, this is an important thing, there was a spirit of optimism, relief that the war was over. A great sense of progress. A sense of being able to manage your problems. A sense of institutions-government and private-being able to deal with the problems,” he said. “It was a very different mood in the country and in Indiana than in subsequent years. It was a good time to grow up.”
Upon graduating from Central High School, Hamilton journeyed to DePauw University where he played basketball for the Tigers. Here, though, his world started to expand beyond shooting hoops. Reminders of the war still persisted and were apparent on campus. Twenty-something soldiers on the GI Bill joined fraternities, offering a unique international perspective to his college life. In 1952, Hamilton completed his degree. But as he walked across the stage at commencement, he said he vividly remembers not having the slightest idea of what he wanted to do.
So, like many college graduates nowadays, he decided to travel. In the 50s, going to foreign lands to live and study wasn’t nearly as common as it is today. Yet in 1952, he flew to Germany for a year to take part in some course work at Gerta University in Frankfort. At the time, he was the first in his family to ever go abroad.
“My German wasn’t good enough to do college level work so I decided I’d travel,” Hamilton said. “The German Universities at the time didn't care if you attended class or not. I didn't care. So we reached a mutual agreement.”
Through his time in Europe, the 21-year-old Midwest boy met a variety of different people. Several of the boys in his dorm served as Adolph Hitler’s bodyguards during the war, but afterward had renounced the dictator’s ways and had become preachers. These experiences began to open Hamilton's eyes to the world and had a profound effect on his interest in foreign affairs.
“Living in a foreign environment, especially in a non-English speaking environment is a terrific experience for a young person to have because you do learn the commonality of humanity,” the congressman said. “You learn that all of us have the same hopes and desires and dreams and ambitions. You understand that Evansville or Greencastle isn't the center of the universe necessarily.”
Basketball also found its way back into Hamilton’s life. During that year, he played on the German National Basketball Championship Team where he tried in earnest to understand the coach’s predominantly German instructions. The sport had really just started to become popular in Europe and most players knew only of America’s most infamous team, The Harlem Globetrotters.
“They learned to thrown the ball behind their back before a straight chest pass,” he said.
Upon his return home from Europe, some big changes took place. Hamilton enrolled in law school at Indiana University- Bloomington. He would receive his law degree in 1956. He also married the love of his life, Nancy. Together they would raise three children.
The bookish practice of law soon began to bore Hamilton, and with his international experience in the back of his mind, he became restless. In 10 years' time he had taken several law jobs, the final one situating him in Columbus, Indiana. Instead, he decided to run for a seat in Congress.
Stars had a way of lining up for Hamilton. It didn’t hurt that he ran in 1964, one of the largest Democratic landslides of the 20th century.
“There’s a lot of luck in politics and I ran in a year that was a big Democratic year,” Hamilton said. “I was very new to the game. I did not know it was a very Democratic year. My political intent and I were not that sharp.”
For 34 years Hamilton remained in Congress becoming one of the most revered representatives of his time. In those decades, he worked with nine different presidents and met countless foreign leaders, eventually becoming known as master negotiator. As chairman of the House Intelligence committee and the House Foreign Affairs committee, his influence extended far beyond the borders of the Hoosier state.
“One of the things in politics is that you meet people of all kinds of levels, probably as much as in any other profession,” Hamilton said. “I got to know a number of prominent leaders both in this country and abroad. They’re people. They may be world figures. They may be in the newspaper every day for a couple of years but fundamentally they are not all that different from you and me. You accept people and work with them.”
Forty times each year he would travel back home to Indiana to receive input from his constituents and keep them abreast of new legislation. At least three different presidential candidates considered adding him as vice president to their ticket. The funny thing is Hamilton admits he never really had an interest in politics. What he did enjoy was formulating policy.
Restlessness began to stir in the Indiana congressman again and in 1999 he decided to not seek re-election to Congress. A change of pace was needed. Always interested in shared learning and multiculturalism, he became president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Since retiring from the House, Hamilton also has contributed to numerous governmental entities including the 9/11 Commission and advisory boards to both the CIA and FBI.
A Hoosier at heart, Hamilton returned as director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University where he currently serves a professor in the School for Public and Environmental Affairs.
“I like that Hoosier hospitality. I like the common sense, pragmatic streak that Hoosiers have,” Hamilton said. “I’ve lived in Washington and I’ve lived in Indiana. And believe you me, they are very, very different. And that’s one reason I’m back here. I like Indiana. Indiana has been very good to me.”
SO YOU KNOW
• WHO: Lee Hamilton
• AGE: 82
• BORN: Daytona Beach, Fla.
• IN OFFICE: Indiana’s 9th District congressman, 1965-99
• DID YOU KNOW?: The nine-mile stretch of Interstate and Ind. 265 in Clark and Floyd counties was named the Lee H. Hamilton Highway shortly after his retirement from the House and Representatives in 1999.