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Lee Hamilton Biography

U.S. House of Representatives

Indiana, 9th Congressional District, 1964-98

 

Lee Herbert Hamilton was born in Daytona Beach, Florida on April 20, 1931. His family relocated to Tennessee and then to Indiana, and he attended the public schools in Evansville, where he graduated from Central High School in 1948, winning the coveted Arthur L. Trester award for his excellence in basketball. He attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he studied history and continued the outstanding basketball career that was to earn him a spot in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. He was also involved in student government and served on the school's Council on Religious Life and in the Methodist Student Movement. It was at DePauw that he met his lifelong partner, Nancy Ann Nelson, whom he married in 1954.  Hamilton graduated from DePauw University with honors in 1952 and was awarded the Walker Cup, an award given to the most outstanding member of the senior class. After a year of study at the Goethe University in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, in 1952-53, he entered the Indiana University Law School, graduating in 1956. He went into private practice, first in Chicago and then in Columbus, Indiana, where the three Hamilton children, Tracy Lynn, Deborah Lee, and Douglas Nelson were born.  Hamilton served as chairman of the Bartholomew County Citizens for Kennedy in 1960, and treasurer of the Bartholomew County Young Democrats in 1960-63, then as its president from 1963 to 1964. He managed Birch Bayh's Senate campaign in Bartholomew County in 1962, then was persuaded to run for Congress in 1964 and won.

 

Congressional Career

During his first year, Hamilton was chosen as president of the 89th Congress Democratic "freshmen," and a year later was named Outstanding Freshman Congressman by the Capitol Hill Young Democratic Club for displaying "the characteristics of an effective Congressman: familiarity with the legislation that comes to the House floor; ardent committee work, and responsiveness to his constituents" (from press release of Jan. 18, 1966), characteristics that remained throughout his career. He was sent back to the House for 16 additional terms from a district that ostensibly belonged to the Republican Party, in part because of his moderate and independent voting record, but above all for his unflagging service to his constituents and the sincerity and integrity that they attributed to him.

 

In March 1966, the Democratic Study Group of the House of Representatives sent out a research memo encouraging congressmen to find out how much federal government money was coming back into their districts. Hamilton and his staff undertook this effort in earnest, writing to all federal departments and agencies that might be supporting projects in the 9th district. With this information, Hamilton began a career-long effort to secure federal funds for district needs, beginning in his first year with the authorization of 12 new post offices. Over his 34 years in Congress, his efforts made possible reservoirs, schools, sewers, redesigned military bases and a host of other economic and community development efforts. At a retirement celebration, a large map of the 9th district was hardly visible for the multitude of pins placed in it to show all the district projects for which he had helped secure funding.

 

Hamilton's constituent relations fed directly into his legislative work. Bills that he initiated in the areas of government operations, economic development, crime, drug abuse, and environmental protection were frequently the outgrowth of expressed constituent concerns. Even as he became influential in foreign affairs and national economic policy, he maintained a record of legislation intended to be good for Hoosiers as well as the nation. As his vision in national and international affairs grew, he became a supporter of legislation promoting democracy and market reform in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and peace and stability in the Middle East, expanding U.S. markets and trade overseas, and overhauling U.S. export and foreign aid policies. Throughout his career he was supportive of legislation that would improve the efficiency and ensure the integrity of Congress through ethics, administrative, and organizational reforms. He was consistently against war and adamantly in favor of exhausting all other options before resorting to violence.

 

Hamilton's committee service was extensive. He served on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee from 1967-72 and on the Joint Economic Committee from 1975-98, serving as vice-chair in 1983-1988 and 1991-92 and as chair in 1989-90. He served on the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the entire 34 years of his congressional career, assuming the role of chair in 1993-94. As chair of that committee's Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East from 1977 to 1994, he undertook ambitious schedules of hearings intended both to gather information and to strengthen the ability of the House to play a greater role in the oversight and conduct of foreign policy. His concern with the role and functioning of Congress was expressed as well through his service on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (1977-80), the Select Committee on Ethics (1977-78), and the Commission on Administrative Review (1977-78), and through his co-chairmanship of the Joint Committee on the Reorganization of Congress (1992-93), which was established largely through his tenacity in pushing the authorizing legislation forward. Other committee service included the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (1981-86), of which he was chair in 1985-86; the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (1987-88); the Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran (Iran-Contra) in 1987, which catapulted him onto the national stage during the public hearings; and the Task Force to Investigate Certain Allegations Concerning Holding of Americans as Hostages in Iran in 1980 ("October Surprise" Task Force), which he chaired in 1991-92.

 

Post-Congressional Career

Upon leaving Congress in 1998, Hamilton became director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC and established the Center on Congress at Indiana University, which he also directs. He has remained an important and active voice on matters of international relations and foreign affairs, serving as a Commissioner on the influential United States Commission on National Security in the 21st Century (better known as the Hart-Rudman Commission), and as Co-Chair with former Senator Howard Baker of the Baker-Hamilton Commission to Investigate Certain Security Issues at Los Alamos. He was also appointed a member of the advisory council for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2001, and from December 2002 through August 2004 served as Vice-Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. He has continued working with the 9-11 Public Discourse Project growing out of the commission's work, advocating untiringly in support of the National Intelligence Reform Act, which was signed into law on December 17, 2004. His continuing advocacy for a stronger congressional role in foreign policy and for greater public awareness of, and concern for, the work of Congress has been expressed in two books written after his retirement from Congress, How Congress Works and Why You Should Care (2004) and Strengthening Congress (2009), both published by the Indiana University Press.  He also publishes a bi-weekly "Comments on Congress" electronic newsletter, available via email to interested citizens and disseminated regularly to district and regional newspapers by the Center on Congress at Indiana University (congress@indiana.edu).

 

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last updated: 11/2/2009