Political crises are supposed to be a thing of the past for Lee Hamilton. Lately – most notably as vice-chair of the 9/11 commission or co-chair of the Iraq Study Group – he has advocated diplomacy. He never expected, after retiring from 34 years in Congress, to make history practicing diplomacy himself.
But last summer, Iran arrested Haleh Esfandiari, who directs the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, which Mr. Hamilton heads. Accused of spying, Ms. Esfandiari was kept under house arrest in her mother's Tehran home, and then taken to prison. A plea for her freedom had to be made, but Hamilton, who has had the cooperation of presidents and all the power of Congress behind him in the past, didn't know whom to call.
"It's a black hole," he says of Iran. "There's just no conversation between the United States and Iran." So he sent letters to the Iranian president, vice-president, and speaker of parliament. When no one answered, he sent one more – to Iran's most powerful man, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Drafted in consultation with religious leaders and translated into Farsi, the letter included a quote from the Koran. "I didn't come up with the quote," he says, "but I told those who did they damn well better be right, because I did not want to screw up the Koran talking to the supreme leader."
And then, he waited. He'd struck out with Iran's three biggest political figures, and the ayatollah, he'd been told, had never responded to an American before.
But after two months, Iran's UN representative called Hamilton to New York to read a letter from the ayatollah. A veteran of mincing language for legislation, Hamilton zeroed in on the most important sentence: "The issue" would be "addressed." The ayatollah was telling him that Esfandiari would be freed. She came home three weeks later.
He wasn't trying to make a name as a back-channel negotiator. But at a time when the US is weighing an attack on Tehran, who but the man known on both sides of the political divide in Washington as a fair-minded listener would think to pick up the phone and give Iran a call?
Hamilton is Washington's middleman, the mild-mannered moderate more interested in solutions than sound bites. People who know him well compare him as a man of character to Washington and Lincoln, or, as a man of pragmatism, to "that other Hamilton" – Alexander, the Founding Father famous for his worry about the dangers of faction.
Lee Hamilton sees it differently. He explains his old job as if he'd been a teacher, or a mayor, or served in any of hundreds of public service roles performed by thousands of people every day. But Hamilton had a job not many covet and even fewer win: He cast the votes – 16,000 of them – that passed the laws that make America run. Which puts him, he concedes, "at the center of things," but not as the benevolent power broker. It was simpler, he says: "As a member of Congress, you're a bit player in a much "larger drama."
By the 1980s, Hamilton had taken a stronger role in that drama, reaping the spoils of repeated campaign victories – clout through seniority – and chairing House committees on foreign affairs, intelligence, and economic policy. He oversaw an inquiry into the Reagan administration's covert arms sale to Iran, and, after Congress, was vice chair of the 9/11 commission and chair of the Iraq Study Group. "Quick," Hamilton's friend, Rep. Barney Frank, (D) of Massachusetts, is known to say jokingly among friends, "name a commission Hamilton hasn't been on."
His is the kind of career a person builds in cunning steps. But there is no Ivy League degree, no childhood fascination with politics, no emboldened determination to make history. Hamilton's parents – his father was a Methodist minister; his mother, a helper in the church – talked politics at dinner. But for him it was table talk, not a professional path. He wound up in Congress, he says, because being a lawyer bored him.
He'd tried a ritzy Chicago law practice and a small firm in Columbus, Ind., but neither satisfied him. So in 1963, he spent nights and weekends driving his southern Indiana district, to talk politics with anyone he'd meet. A year later – the year of Lyndon Johnson's landslide – he launched his first campaign, a $30,000 fight to regain a seat for the Democrats in a rather conservative state. "I was lucky to run in 1964. Any fool on the Democratic ticket could win in 1964, and several did," recalls Hamilton. "My wife would put me in that category, I'm sure."
If his timing didn't hurt him, neither did his past. By age 16, Hamilton was a household name among Hoosiers. A star high school basketball player, he was injured in the Final Four game his senior year – but won one of Indiana's most coveted prizes, the Trester Award. "It was an award for the student athlete who demonstrates ... the highest character. So even as a loser, people saw what Lee was made of," says Robert McClure, one of Hamilton's early legislative assistants.
Congress suited Hamilton. He arrived at work by 5:30 every morning – for 34 years – partly for quiet time to think, partly to avoid Beltway traffic. The discipline he took from the basketball court helped him stay even-tempered, he says. He liked his colleagues but deferred socializing for dinners with his wife, a grade-school teacher, and their three children. "This was not a guy," a former staffer recalls, "on the rubber chicken circuit."
He wasn't a natural public speaker, but his talent for simplifying complex issues helped him connect with people individually or in small groups. He'd seem to fit as easily into George Bailey's old Building and Loan as he did into the halls of Congress, whose politics he insists he didn't like. He had little use for campaign funding and strategy, intricate guesswork about members' motives, or use of votes to win political points rather than solve problems: "I put up with that in order to be able to work on public policy."
Hamilton earned a reputation as evenhanded and willing to listen to multiple points of view. This made him a useful ally for bipartisan initiatives but a risk to his own party. Indeed, he was one of 31 Democrats to vote for the investigations that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
But even Hamilton's willingness to listen has its limits: Former colleagues say he's plain-spoken, but particularly frank when he's angry. "Understated, but ... firm," says James Thurber, who worked with Hamilton on a House of Representatives administrative reorganization.
That's precisely the style on display this week, as Hamilton reacts to news that the CIA destroyed tapes of detainee interrogations. In the 9/11 commission inquiry, he'd asked for any recordings the agency possessed. "We were told they did not exist," he says. "Our investigation was clearly obstructed." In common parlance, that sounds like being lied to. In legalese, it sounds like a crime. But Hamilton insists there's nuance here: "The CIA's a big organization. It could very well have been that the people we were talking to didn't know about the existence [of the tapes]. I can't say a particular official was lying. But the agency clearly ... misled us.... I'm not saying that's a crime, but I'm saying they obstructed our investigation."
This, in fact, may be Hamilton's best political strategy. You don't build a career like his by reacting emotionally. His first high-profile Congressional assignment was chairing the Iran-Contra investigation; in part on the basis of testimony from Oliver North, he closed his inquiry without recommending a criminal investigation. Two years later, Mr. North was on trial for misleading Congress. You might expect a man passionate about his distaste for government secrecy, who'd staked no small part of his reputation on that inquiry, to be angry. But Hamilton simply says: "I felt I had been lied to."
Today, Hamilton serves Congress in a different role, as a director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a congressionally chartered think tank. His office is simple, with a family portrait on a coffee table and the archive of his constituent newsletters occupying a full shelf. For all his minimalism and informality – he chats with feet propped against the coffee table and rocks on the back legs of his chair – and for all the freedom from fundraising and interest groups, he still plays his cards close to the vest.
A fuller story might tell more than the sum of its guarded parts. This is a man, after all, whose biography could be something of an allegory for modern American history.
But he has always seemed more interested in the national than the personal. He sits on any number of untold stories about America's most critical moments in the past quarter-century, but what good would it do to bring them out now?
After all, you never know when you might need to call Iran.