How has America changed in your lifetime?
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.
I’m impressed with how big and how complicated this country is. When I graduated from high school, we had 130 million people in the country. Today I don’t know what the figure is, but I think I saw a few months ago that we now exceed 300 million. In other words in my working lifetime, the country has more than doubled in size; but much, much more than that, it has become extremely diverse as a country. And how you keep this country together – whether this nation as so conceived and so dedicated can long endure as Lincoln said at Gettysburg – that question was the operative question at Gettysburg. It’s still the operative question. Whether we can keep this country together, prosperous, peaceful, free is the challenge. And my passion, I guess, has always been to see how I can contribute to making the country work better.
I see a lot of things in American life and American society that disturb me. We have a marvelous country, and we’ve been given a marvelous heritage, terrific resources, great opportunities. And I don’t know of anyone who lives here who wants to live in another country. And I know millions of people who live elsewhere who would like to come here. So you begin with gratitude, I think, for what you have. But you also have to recognize our shortcomings. We have a political system today that’s not working very well. Just defeated an immigration bill. We cannot figure out how to give healthcare to everybody in this country. We have an education system that is deficient in so many ways that constantly come to our attention. The infrastructure of the country is crumbling in many, many respects. The institutions are not working as well as we would like them to work. So I think the challenges are immense. Now I don’t look at all of this and conclude it’s hopeless, or I’m a pessimist or anything of the sort; but I do have a real sense of the challenge. And neither am I a starry-eyed optimist. You see a lot of people who portray a kind of false optimism that is not based on fact, really, and the problems that we confront. So I just like the traditional, hardheaded, pragmatic, old-fashioned approach of Americans who see their country and their community as it is, and they want to make it better.
I don’t see how any American can be comfortable with our health care system today given the fact that so many of our citizens are not covered. Here we have the most marvelous medicine in the world if you can pay for it; but so many Americans do not. There’s a janitor who comes to my office and cleans it. And he’s a nice man. His teeth are falling out. I go to the dentist. I get a bill – $500, $1,000 for a routine checkup. I can pay that, fortunately, and I can pay it for my family. Here we are in the United States of America, the richest country in the world, and we can’t get good dental care for the janitor. I’m disturbed by those things.
Or take education today. I used to go to high schools and give speeches all the time. Politicians do. I’d look out over that high school group and we’d have interactions. My fractions might not be right here, but 50% of those kids I don’t need to worry about. They come from good homes. They go to their churches. They have good healthcare. They’re involved in their community. They may not all be A-students, but they’re doing well. Many of them are A-students, and we’re not going to screw those kids up. They’re going to make it, and they’re going to do well in life. What bothers me is that other half. Now there was a time when we were so good, and so strong, and so powerful as a country that we didn’t really need to worry too much about that other half. But that’s changing now, and we’ve gotta begin to bring them up. And that means the educational system has to be sharply improved. So I worry about these things and many, many others.
Who can possibly be comfortable or satisfied with the performance of the United States Congress today? I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. We cannot solve the immigration bill. They took up a bill – and it wasn’t a perfect bill for sure – rejected it. But we have a huge problem. We can’t solve it. And these other things we haven’t been able to solve. So I think we have a failure of political leadership in the country. And I don’t put that in the context of the George Bush presidency. I put it in the context of the last several decades. This system is not working as well as it should. And when I began this program, I said that my interest was in making the country work, and it still is. And I think the challenges ahead of us are immense. Recorded on: 7/5/07
Hamilton discusses the problems America faces as a bigger and more diverse place than the America he grew up in.
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