For the WQ and its parent institution, the Woodrow Wilson Center, this autumn brings a landmark event. President and director Lee Hamilton is stepping down after 12 years at the Center’s helm to return to Indiana, whose Ninth District he represented in Congress for 34 years. Lee departs with the profound respect and affection of all those who had the privilege of serving with him at the Center and sharing in its growing achievements and recognition under his leadership.
At a time when Americans’ confidence in public life is at low ebb, there are larger lessons in Lee’s exemplary life in public service. His career has taken him from the chairmanship of such important House committees as Foreign Affairs and Intelligence to many other public duties, including vice chairmanship of the 9/11 Commission. But while he is universally considered one of Washington’s “wise men,” Lee is also to his bones a small “d” democrat, as apt to pull up a chair in the Center’s lunchroom with a table full of interns as with the Center’s scholars. A living symbol of bipartisanship in a city where that quality is exceedingly rare, he has shown that being in the middle is not a matter of being wishy-washy. A proud Democrat with strong views, Lee nevertheless regularly met privately during George W. Bush’s presidency with high administration officials who sought his perspective.
Once, during one of those always educational sessions in the Center’s lunchroom, Lee explained that one of the biggest divides among politicians is simply between those who are willing to listen to others and those who are not. For Lee, listening is not just a matter of temperament; it is a philosophical tenet. He doesn’t think he has a monopoly on truth. That belief is one of the qualities that made him an ideal leader for the Center, with its commitment to wide-ranging inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge in the public service.
Retirement is not a word Lee Hamilton utters. A man who customarily arrived at the office at an hour when farmers were out milking their cows, he will continue to direct Indiana University’s Center on Congress and serve the nation on a variety of public commissions and boards. All of us at the WQ and the Center salute him.
Photo: Lee Hamilton converses with Her Excellency Nirupama Rao, the Foreign Secretary of India, in his Wilson Center office.