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D.C. again turns to Midwestern 'Wise Man'

Published: Sunday, Nov. 26 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — In a city of fixers, climbers and vendors of influence, of people who parlay government service into lucrative private-sector employment, there is also a smaller fraternity made up of people with no less fondness for fame, perhaps, but no apparent need for fortune.

Such people are often called "The Wise Men." They are a storied but shrinking club trusted for the soundness of their advice and judgment, not for the favor that can be returned. "Wise Men" are summoned at moments of national crisis, brought in precisely because of their ability to rise above partisan conflict in moments like the Sept. 11 attacks and, now, the Iraq war.

In both crises, official Washington turned to the same quietly resolute Midwesterner to make sense of it all: Lee Hamilton, a 75-year-old former Indiana Democratic congressman with a '50s-era brush cut and a clear-eyed appreciation for the hard realities of foreign policy.

Along with Republican James Baker, former secretary of state and Bush family confidant, Hamilton will convene the Iraq Study Group, a commission of 10 prominent Democrats and Republicans on Monday and Tuesday to prepare recommendations for President Bush on U.S. strategy in Iraq.

"We have not reached agreement at this stage," Hamilton said in a recent interview. "We're working very hard to get a consensus view. That's not guaranteed at this point."

Hamilton comes to his assignment with a resume long on matters of substance. He was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees and the committee that investigated the Iran-contra scandal. He helped shape the debate before the Persian Gulf war and on into the deployment of U.S. troops to keep the peace in Bosnia. He was in Washington throughout the period of Vietnam as well.

The Sept. 11 Commission that Hamilton helped lead delivered a harsh assessment of the government's response to the terrorist attacks. That assessment shaped public opinion of the event's ramifications and led to changes in the nation's intelligence apparatus.

In an era of politics dominated by partisan warriors, Hamilton commands respect across party lines. And at a time when retiring members of Congress routinely rush out the door to lobbying firms where they can sell their influence to the highest bidder, he passed up the chance for big money and retains unquestioned independence.

Instead, Hamilton is living out the final years of his public life as director of an academic-oriented think tank, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. He lives in the same suburban four-bedroom colonial in Alexandria, Va., where he and his wife raised their children.

When he is not working at his office in the Reagan Building or performing his swimming, bicycling and weightlifting workout regimen, he is apt to be in his study, sitting in his Kennedy rocker. Often he'll read poetry aloud or continue his lifetime study of religious works, but these days he's more often poring over reports and paperwork on Iraq, said his wife of 52 years, Nancy.

His is nothing if not a serious persona, with an academic bearing, lanky body and perpetually sincere mien, the embodiment of the Wise Man model.

"Lee Hamilton is one of the few of them left," said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, who worked closely with Hamilton on the Sept 11 Commission. Republican Kean was the chairman and Hamilton the vice-chairman.

"If you could name five or six of them now it would be a lot. You used to be able to name 20 or 30," added Kean, who grew up in the capital's power circles as the son of a congressman.

Bitter partisan divisions and changes in Washington's culture have made it harder for such elder statesmen to emerge. Informal ties among political figures, respect across party lines and a shared sense of national purpose helped nurture them.

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