Lee H. Hamilton is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University. Hamilton represented Indiana’s 9th congressional district for 34 years beginning January 1965. He served as chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, the Joint Economic Committee, and the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. As a member of the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee Hamilton was a primary draftsman of several House ethics reforms.
Since leaving the House, Hamilton has served on several commissions including serving as Vice-Chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission), co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, the National Commission on the War Powers of the President and the Congress, and the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. He is currently a member of the FBI Director’s Advisory Board, the Defense Secretary’s National Security Study Group, and the US Department of Homeland Security Task Force on Preventing the Entry of Weapons of Mass Effect on American Soil.
Hamilton: I don’t like the way we run campaigns in this country particularly. I don’t think we’re tough enough on the candidates. And I mean by that I don’t think we press them hard enough. George Bush came into office as President of the United States, and very few Americans had any idea at all of what his foreign policy would be. I’m not sure he did. Bill Clinton did the same thing in 1992. “It’s the economy, stupid” was the theme of the campaign. And I remember talking to him when he was President Elect, and he said, “Nobody asked me in the campaign much about foreign policy.” In this area, which I focused on to some degree, we just don’t press them hard enough.
When Tony Blair was running for re-election as Prime Minister, he would go into every little town and village of the United Kingdom . . . go in in the morning, and the first thing he would do is he would have a news conference with the local press, and he would have to answer every question imaginable on how to solve the Middle East, and how to get water delivered . . . ______ water delivered in that community. We don’t have that kind of mechanism yet. And we’ve got to try to develop a better mechanism for our candidates so we learn more about them. And then once they are elected, I’m not at all satisfied with the accountability for those officials. Let’s take the president. It’s very difficult to hold the President of the United States accountable. The news conference has become a farce – much controlled by the White House. He knows exactly who he’s going to call on before he goes into that press conference. Very, very rarely gets a question that is not anticipated. There is no way you can drill, if you would, a president like the U.K. does a Prime Minister. I’m not for the parliamentary system, but I see some advantages in the way they do that. So I think we have to strengthen the mechanisms for accountability in our system. And I think it’s a major challenge for us in the years ahead.
There are plenty of things wrong with this system; but the very worst thing you can do is throw up your hands and walk away from it. That almost assures that the system gets worse. So I think all you can do in this circumstance as a person, as an individual, is to try. Now look. Most of us are not gonna have the chance to sit down and make peace in the world, and very few of us are gonna be able to solve the Social Security system in the United States. What you can do is make your own neighborhood and your own community better.
So I had a mother come to me who had a 15-year old daughter killed at a railroad crossing because there was no flashing light there – signal. She went to work on that in my state, and it became a crusade for her to get a flashing railroad signal at every crossing – or dangerous crossing at least – in the state. That’s the kind of thing that has to be done. You do not find cynicism among people who are involved in their communities. I don’t care what it is. You may think the school board’s not functioning well. You may think there ought to be a traffic light at a given intersection. You may think that the industries in the community are polluted. On and on and on with all of the problems we have in the community. The important thing is not to rant and rave against the politicians in Washington who can’t get the job done, although that may be the fact. The important thing is to try to solve problems where you can, to do it constructively in your community, in your neighborhood. And of course the most important obligation of all, in your family.
Recorded on: 7/5/07