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Categorized | Voices and Views

Practicing politics at a high level – part 1

By Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative and Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government

 Over a lifetime in politics, I’ve met a lot of interesting, impressive politicians. But those I truly admired were men and women who were adept at the arts both of politics and legislating — a rare combination of talents. They’re a reminder these days of what consummate skill looks like.

Wilbur Mills, a Democrat from Arkansas who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, was a master of legislative detail. When Mills was on the floor, it was never really an equal debate, because his grasp of the internal revenue code was so overwhelming.

Jim Wright of Texas and Hale Boggs of Louisiana, also both Democrats, were great orators with vibrant, unique voices. They seldom referred to notes, but I suspect they practiced — the chuckle in the right place, the extended pause at the perfect moment.

Edith Green, a Democrat from Oregon, was a potent force behind Title IX, the 1972 law that did so much to end sex discrimination in education. Green, too, was a highly effective debater, who had a keen sense of when the time was right to wage a fight. She paved the way for many talented women who followed her.

Charlie Halleck of Indiana and H.R. Gross of Iowa, both Republican, were parliamentary masters who could stall or just plain defeat legislation by the adroit use of just the right parliamentary maneuver. John Anderson of Illinois served as the principal Republican voice at a time when the GOP was in the minority. He was a powerful debater and took delight in verbal combat, while making plain his devotion to the nation.

You couldn’t call Tip O’Neill, the legendary Speaker of the House from Massachusetts, a great orator. But he was a truly great politician. He had a knack for putting people at ease, calming tensions, and softening debates.

Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader from Montana, had similar gifts. He was decent, humble, fair-minded, and spread credit to everyone around him while taking none for himself.

Finally, Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma somehow managed to unite northeastern liberals and southern conservatives in his party. They opposed one another in ideology and culture, yet Albert often reconciled the irreconcilable with grace and insight. He listened patiently to people, trying to understand their points of view, patch things up, and find even the tiniest plot of ground for consensus.

 Next: What they all had in common.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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