This fall, after 12 years of esteemed leadership, Lee H. Hamilton will step down as the Woodrow Wilson Center's president and director. "It's time for me to step aside and let new leaders take over," he said.
Hamilton arrived at the Wilson Center in 1998 straight from Capitol Hill, where he had served for 34 years as a U.S. congressman from Indiana's ninth district. He came with a reputation for fairness and bipartisanship. Having earned the respect of his colleagues on the Hill, he would become equally revered by every Wilson Center staff member and scholar who had the pleasure of working with or knowing him.
"Lee is an honest, decent, thoughtful human being in a city where these qualities are all too rare," said Blair Ruble, director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. "One is struck by the decency of this place under his directorship."
When Hamilton arrived at the Wilson Center with Michael Van Dusen, the Center's executive vice president, Van Dusen said, "the message indelibly on our minds was that Congress and OMB felt the Center needed to do three things: raise more private funding; beef up outreach efforts; and make the work of the Center more relevant to the key public policy issues" confronting our nation.
Over the past 12 years, the federal appropriation has tripled and the amount of money raised and spent overall has quadrupled. Nearly two-thirds of the Center's funding now comes from private sources and roughly one-third comes from Congress. "But that one-third [from Congress] is critically important," Hamilton underscored. "It is unrestricted money and we can leverage it to raise other money."
Also under Hamilton's leadership, outreach efforts expanded dramatically; the staff nearly doubled; and the number of Wilson Center programs and projects combined has more than doubled. Four institutes were created: Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. The Center now holds nearly 800 meetings per year. And the number of residential scholars has increased by one-third.
"The Center expanded in every way possible under Lee's leadership," said Ruble. "It's a larger, more vibrant institution."
The Wilson Center remains an institute of advanced research connecting the worlds of academia and policy. But under Hamilton's leadership, the focus on policy relevance has been indelible. "Lee brought the Center closer to the mainstream of the Washington policy discussion," said Ruble.
"More people in D.C. and nationally are taking note of what we do," added Van Dusen. "We're more on the map."
Ever modest about his vast contributions, Hamilton offers thanks to the Center's Board and Council, "and the remarkable staff who put on worthwhile programming. They deserve most of the credit."
But the staff attributes the Center's progress, reputation, and collegial atmosphere to Hamilton's leadership style and personality.
"Integrity" is the first word that comes to mind when Asia Program Director Robert Hathaway thinks of Hamilton.
"In a city where so many people have their own personal agenda, one thing reassuring about Lee is that he is always thinking about the interests of the Wilson Center and [how its work fits with] America's interests," Hathaway said. "It's been my good fortune to work for him."
Hamilton and Hathaway first were colleagues on Capitol Hill and came to the Wilson Center together. "People take my phone calls because I work for Lee," said Hathaway. "He opens doors because of who he is. He commands immense respect because he transcends partisan differences."
Sean Singer, special assistant to Hamilton, agreed. "In D.C., people of Lee's stature have a reputation for being detached," Singer said. "But Lee is so engaged in what's going on at the Center" and with everyone individually on staff. "He's authentic in caring for the people who work here." On a professional level, he added, "It's been rewarding to have the opportunity to observe how Lee thinks, not only what he thinks, but how he evaluates the evidence and reaches conclusions."
Hamilton makes himself accessible to everyone from senior scholar to intern. "Lee is always fair, inclusive with staff, and believes in transparency," said Van Dusen. In addition to his open-door policy, Hamilton can be seen virtually every day having lunch in the Center's café with a variety of staff and scholars. Anyone can come up to chat, and he welcomes it.
Sharon McCarter, vice president for Outreach & Communications, said, "Lee always makes everyone on staff feel equal and is on a first-name basis with everyone. My first week here, he joked that if I called him ‘Mr. Hamilton' one more time, I was fired."
"The Wilson Center community involves everybody," said Van Dusen. Every program brings multiple viewpoints to the table, "then Lee sets the tone. It's rare that Lee sits on an issue. He always makes a decision then wants to move forward."
While Hamilton's reputation and focus on public policy considerably raised the profile of the Center, he made it a priority to bring the Center's work to the forefront. In 1999, the Wilson Center created a public affairs division (later renamed Outreach & Communications) and hired Sharon McCarter to head it. She would build a team over the next decade to extend the work of the Center.
"When I arrived, Lee wanted the program offices to be part of a united Wilson Center, so we did some re-branding—we chose a new logo, adopted graphics standards—to promote the individual programs as part of the whole Center."
Since then, the Center expanded its web presence, overhauled its newsletter, established a graphics shop, and created a Director's Forum series that brings in high-level speakers. "Lee made that happen," McCarter said. "He brought together all the communication shops [the Press, Wilson Quarterly, dialogue] under one umbrella, giving us consistency and coherence."
The Center is respected as an institution, its products appreciated, and I believe it has an impact," said Hamilton. "I'm always interested in what happens after the meeting adjourns," he said, alluding to the dialogues and publications that often follow Center events.
"Because of Lee's leadership, I could bring speakers from multiple perspectives to have civilized conversations," said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program. "Lee's presence is a draw in foreign policy circles. In dealing with such a sensitive region, no matter what, I had the full backing of Lee and the Center."
Esfandiari and Philippa Strum, a senior scholar and former U.S. Studies director, agreed on the autonomy Hamilton provided the directors. He might offer an opinion, they said, but always told directors to proceed as they saw fit.
"Lee always had my back," said Strum. "He was open to whatever direction…or programming I wanted to do. Lee was supportive, even on ideas or issues removed from his areas of expertise."
Esfandiari learned of Hamilton's fearless determination when he was actively trying to get her exonerated and released during her captivity in Iran in 2007 on erroneous espionage charges. "I'm a living example that Lee would do anything possible to help a colleague in need."
Ten years ago, Ruble approached Hamilton with the somewhat risky proposal for a higher education initiative in Russia. At the time, no ongoing Wilson Center project took place outside the Wilson Center's offices, much less outside the country. Ruble said Hamilton encouraged him and was enthusiastic. The program is still going strong, said Ruble, and permanent reforms have resulted in Russia from it.
Hamilton cited some of the Center programming that has elevated important policy issues such as Esfandiari's work on women's issues in the Middle East, work on nonproliferation, led by Vice President for Programs and International Security Studies Director Robert Litwak; and the nanotechnology research conducted by the Science, Technology and Innovation Program. "Our institutes are doing critical work on these and other regions and topics," he said.
Hamilton is looking forward to the next chapter in his life: moving back to Indiana with his wife Nancy and their lab, Bertha, and spending more quality time with his children and grandkids. Averse to the word "retire," he will continue his affiliation with Indiana University's Center on Congress, which he created.
"The Wilson Center has momentum now and I'm confident it will prosper," Hamilton said. "This institution is not for the short haul. We are in the business of ideas relating to public policy and will continue to have a substantial impact."
written by Dana Steinberg