Lee Hamilton Shares Memories From His Public Life

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Former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana is retiring after more than 40 years of public service. Hamilton will step down from his position as president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center later this year. He talks to Steve Inskeep about his experiences.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The world has changed in many ways over the past several decades, but here's one thing that's stayed the same: Lee Hamilton was always a significant voice in American foreign policy.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

He was elected to Congress in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was president. He chaired the House Committee on International Affairs.

SHAPIRO: And in more recent years, he was on the 9/11 Commission, and he has been president of a think tank called the Wilson International Center.

INSKEEP: Now, at age 79, Lee Hamilton is leaving that job and preparing to return home to Indiana. We dropped by his office to ask what he's learned in a long public life.

Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Former Congressman; Former President, Wilson International Center): I'm reminded about that great story about Paul Douglas, senator from Illinois, who said: I came to Washington. I wanted to save the world. And he'd been in Washington a while, he decided he wanted to save the United States. He'd been here a little - for a longer time, he wanted to save Illinois. And when he was about ready to retire, he said I want to save the Indiana dunes. You keep...

INSKEEP: Well, they're nice dunes.

Mr. HAMILTON: They're nice dunes, and it's a worthy effort, but its' not the world. And I think that you come filled with ambition and drive and energy and wanting to accomplish great things, and you find the system is very hard to move, to make it work. And I think what has impressed me over the years is the sheer complexity and difficulty of governing this country.

INSKEEP: You know, I wonder when you came into Congress in the mid-1960s, it was the last moment when there was something that people would describe as a bipartisan consensus in foreign policy, the direction the country could go.

Then there were several great decades of great ideological disputes over what the countries should be doing. Is there a consensus now, do you think, if you look over the last few years?

Mr. HAMILTON: Much less than earlier. The challenges, it seems to me, have become much more diverse and more difficult.

INSKEEP: One reason I think of that, though, is because President Obama came into office, and, of course, was very critical of President Bush's foreign policy. But even some of his supporters, I think, have been surprised or even disappointed to learn that he has continued some of the same policies, perhaps tweaked them here and there. What does that say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMILTON: It says the problems are very different when you're dealing with them in the Oval Office than they are when you're dealing with them on the campaign trail. I think President Obama has taken some different approachesto President Bush, particularly in President Bush's first term.

But you would have to say that, at the same time, on the big issues, the Obama foreign policy is still very much a work in progress. Iran is still building a nuclear weapon. The North Koreans still have the nuclear weapon. And you kind of go down the list and you see that not an awful lot of progress has been made.

INSKEEP: Iran is an issue in which you've been engaged for decades in one way or another, in Congress or here at the Wilson Center. After all those years, do you think you understand what drives that government and what goes on in that country?

Mr. HAMILTON: I think Iran is a much more complicated government than we think it is in this country. The hostilities between the two countries are very deep on all kinds of issues, not just the nuclear issue. And the big challenge we confront now is: How do you establish an authentic channel of communication, sustained over a period of time, to address these problems?

Let me go back a minute. I was in the Congress during the period the Soviet Union was in control. We used to have meetings with the Soviet parliamentarians. I'd get up and read a speech. They'd get up and read a speech. At the end of the speech, we'd toast each other with Vodka and say we were for peace in the world and prosperity for our grandchildren, and nothing would happen. And we kept doing that year after year after year after year.

Then something changed. And what changed was we put the speeches away and we began to talk with one another about the issues. That was the beginning of the thaw. It took us 40 years to get there. The point is that - and it applies to Iran - the problems are exceedingly difficult, but you've got to keep trying to solve them, even though you're not making much progress at the time.

INSKEEP: What worries you the most about the future?

Mr. HAMILTON: Whether this nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

INSKEEP: You just quoted Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

Mr. HAMILTON: That's correct. That was the operational question at Gettysburg. It's the operational question today. I worry a lot more than most people, I think, about our ability internally to deal with our problems than I do about external problems. But I really wonder whether this country, moving in the direction it can, can solve the problems it has in front of it and continue to be number one in the world.

INSKEEP: You mean economic problems, political problems?

Mr. HAMILTON: I mean all kinds of problems: cultural, economic, political -obviously, the deficit problems and our budget. We're spending far more money than we have. We're consuming far more than we produce. You just can't keep that up on the economic side.

The big question in foreign policy today, the toughest question any American president confronts is: When do I intervene? I come out of Iraq and Afghanistan a lot more conservative. I think America has an enormously important role to play in the world. But I also come away now thinking that we're not quite as able to solve a lot of these problems in the world as we might have thought at one time.

INSKEEP: Is there a connection between those two concerns you laid out, concerns about keeping the country itself functioning properly and how much you intervene overseas?

Mr. HAMILTON: Oh, absolutely. I think there is. We have to make sure that our resources match our ambitions. I came up in politics right after John F. Kennedy had given that great inaugural speech: pay any price, bear any burden in defense of freedom. I was thrilled by that. Does anybody believe it today? We're not going to pay any price and bear any burden to establish freedom in the world. We couldn't possibly do it if we wanted to.

We've got to get our ambitions in line with our resources. Can we build a new nation in Afghanistan? I don't think so. Can we build a new nation in Iraq? I don't think so there, either. To what extent should we try? Well, legitimate points of debate and discussion, but I have a sharp sense of limitations.

INSKEEP: Mr. Hamilton, thanks very much for taking the time.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Former Congressman Lee Hamilton served in Washington more than 40 years and is retiring from the Wilson International Center for Scholars.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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