Lee Hamilton: Honest, wise, capable leaders – is that too much to ask?

Each of the great politicians and legislators I’ve known over the course of my career in Congress was very different. They were masters of the rules, or unassailably knowledgeable about a given issue, or supremely watchable orators. But they also shared key traits that I wish more elected officials possessed.

For starters, the great politicians I’ve met enjoyed the game, and they worked on the skills needed to play it well. They were good speakers and adroit persuaders, whether on the floor of the Congress or sitting in a supporter’s living room with a dozen strangers. 

They also embraced a life in politics because they believed they could make a difference. They had confidence in themselves, their ideas, and their ability to find their way out of tough spots. They were not dismayed by the give and take of politics.

And they could master legislative detail. This may be hard to see from afar, but serious legislating requires mind-numbing work.

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Many of the strongest political leaders I met over the years had a passion for leadership. There are 435 members of the House and 100 senators; they’re already leaders. So those who rose to the top of the ranks had something extra: they wanted to be leaders of the leaders.

And not just in Congress. Their attitude toward the presidents they served with was interesting. They had a deep respect for the office of the presidency, but they insisted that the president display equal respect for Congress. They took the idea of a co-equal branch of government seriously.

They applied the same sensibility to their colleagues. They were serious about strengthening the institution from the inside.

When he first arrived at what he called the “President’s House” (he was the first president to live in the residence now known as the White House) John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail to let her know he had arrived and that “the Building is in a State to be habitable.” And then he appended this: “May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”

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Forgiving him his assumption about a president’s gender, isn’t that the hope we all have to possess as citizens? That our political leaders are ever honest and wise? I certainly do.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.