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 rarer combination of talents than you’d hope for in our representative democracy. They’re a reminder these days of what consummate skill looks like.
For instance, Wilbur Mills, a Democrat from Arkansas who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, was a master of legislative detail. When he brought changes to the tax law to the floor, members of the House of both parties would simply ask him questions, rather than challenge him, because his grasp of the internal revenue code was so overwhelming. When Mills was on the floor, it was never really an equal debate.
The same held for Jim Wright of Texas and Hale Boggs of Louisiana, also both Democrats. They were great orators with vibrant, unique voices that drew audiences to the House floor and galleries simply to hear them. They seldom referred to notes, but I suspect they practiced — the chuckle in the right place, the extended pause at the perfect moment. They were masters at using humor as an effective weapon to counter an opponent and deflect critics.
Edith Green, a Democrat from Oregon, served ten terms in the House from the mid-‘50s to the mid-‘70s. She specialized in education and 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 did not back down from a fight she chose to wage — but who also had a keen sense of when the time was right to wage it. 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. I often saw them block or delay measures I personally supported, and had to admire their skill at stalling, slowing down or just plain defeating legislation by the adroit use of just the right parliamentary maneuver.
Meanwhile, 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, took delight in verbal combat, and was often the lone voice against an onslaught of speakers from the majority party. He spoke forcefully, and out of a genuinely deep devotion to the nation that made plain his ideals.
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. He made everyone in the room feel as though they were all in it together — whatever the “it” was that O’Neill was focused on.
Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader from Montana, had similar gifts. He was easily the most popular man in Congress during the years he served: he was decent, humble, fair-minded, and he spread credit to everyone around him while taking none for himself. He had a bedrock integrity about him and knew how to use his consummate personal skills to make the process work — even dealing with the difficult egos you could find in the Senate.
I routinely watched Senators Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Jacob Javits, a Republican from New York, come into a meeting, quickly grasp the issues, speak to them forcefully and right to the point, and then move on to their next meeting — on an entirely different issue — and give the same performance. Their ability to jump from agriculture to nuclear proliferation to health care to education — all in the course of a few hours — was astounding.
Finally, Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma somehow managed to unite both northeastern liberals and southern conservatives in his party. They were opposed to one another in ideology and culture, yet Albert often reconciled the irreconcilable with grace and insight. He spent hours listening 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.