On the trail: Courage and kindness on Skelton's journey from Warm Springs to Capitol Hill
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - When he was a teenager, polio dashed Ike Skelton's dream of serving the military. But that didn't deter Skelton from carrying on with his life – not by a long shot.
Case in point: When Skelton returned as a teenager to his high school – Wentworth Military Academy – he was a member of the track team. After the disease debilitated his arms, his teammates cut slits in his shorts, inserted his hands and taped his arms down so he could run. It was a risk because Skelton might fall -- but he competed.
During a match against Wentworth’s rival – Kemper Military Academy in Boonville – Skelton finished third in the two-mile run. But he won a point for his team and a got a rousing ovation from both sides at the finish line.
Skelton received a similar overwhelming, bipartisan deluge of praise when he passed away last week at the age of 81 from complications of pneumonia. His funeral was Monday in his hometown of Lexington.
Skelton, a Democrat, made an indelible mark on Missouri and national politics during his 34-year tenure in the U.S. House, becoming especially well known for his expertise on military affairs. He was also fondly remembered as a kind and down-to-earth man who could make an impact through a handshake.
One person with a unique perspective on Skelton is Scott Charton, a former correspondent for the Associated Press who is now a political consultant. Charton helped the former representative complete his memoir "Achieve the Honorable."The book – released last month– chronicles Skelton’s life, including how he transcended polio to become an athlete, county prosecutor, state senator and, of course, influential congressman.
In a telephone interview with the Beacon, Charton discussed Skelton’s character, impact on public policy and legacy throughout Missouri politics. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Skelton's bout with polio clearly had a major impact on his early life. What do you think his experience battling and recovering from the disease had on the rest of his life and career?
Charton: To understand what he achieved in public life, you have to go back to his teenage years and talk about polio. It’s so easy today to overlook the scourge that polio was in the first half of the 20th century. At one point, many tens of thousands of cases were reported. Franklin Roosevelt was only the most famous person affected by polio, a viral disease that can affect the limbs and other parts of the body.
Ike was 14 years old when he got polio. He had been on a band trip to Columbia while attending Wentworth Military Academy. He started feeling bad. He had a sore throat. He was really exhausted. And by the time the bus got back to Lexington... on that long Saturday, he trudged back a couple of blocks to his family home and he just collapsed on the bed. One of his parents found him the next morning collapsed on the bed. … And he recalled being carried out of the house and taken to the hospital. And there he stayed for some time.
[Polio] left both of his arms useless. His left arm until the day he died was not useful. When he went down to Warm Springs, Ga., to the institute founded by FDR -- he arrived a couple of years after Roosevelt’s death – he was treated there and had a surgery…. That involved making a bicep using other tissue… He could type, he could write, he could shake hands, he could function – including holding a knife or fork or a spoon. That was the challenge.
From an early age, Ike Skelton wanted to be in the military. In the memoir – "Achieve the Honorable" – he talks publicly about how much he wanted to be in the military. His father lied about his age to get into the military, joined the U.S. Navy and was part of the Great White Fleet that circled the globe during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. His dad served in World War I as a coal-shoveling fireman aboard the USS Missouri. Ike wanted to serve and be in uniform – he might have gone career military. At 14 when he was stricken with polio, that seemed out of reach – and indeed it was. He was unable physically to serve.
This was crushing for Ike. But Ike discovered at Warm Springs what he called an infectious, can-do attitude that he attributed to Franklin Roosevelt -- who had inspired the nation in World War II and was personally quite heroic in battling his polio. Ike used that inspiration as his model. In preparing his memoir, we looked at his medical files from many years ago. There were old snapshots of him handling various items and maneuvering his right arm and hand after the surgery. So he was quite determined.
For Ike, it was about finding inspiration – finding a new cause and life’s mission after polio. People would ask why he was so interested in the military and protecting the military men and women. And he said, ‘This is how I serve.’
What do you think will be Skelton's legacy on national defense and military affairs?
Charton: Ike would attend meetings of the House Armed Services Committee and its subcommittees that he wasn’t even part of or expected to attend. He really wanted to learn the nuts and bolts of the military. If you consider that to be the early seeds that are planted, what grew out of that?
I can tell you several things for which Ike Skelton deserves major credit. One was the stress on professional military education. It was very important to him that people who were going to be leaders of the military (were also) scholars. They weren’t just tacticians. They weren’t just soldiers or sailors. They were learned people. So he really supported the military colleges and the service academies.
He especially stressed learning history. Ike Skelton, for example, had his National Security Reading List for many years. Some of the works were from antiquity, practically. Others were much more contemporary works. But he encouraged generals, admirals – and people who wanted to be generals and admirals – to read the books on that list, to absorb them, to think about what they meant and the principles behind them. He thought it was important to know military history and support professional military education.
Ike Skelton was the very apostle of what in the military is called “jointness.” … Each of the service branches had been fiercely independent – and indeed jealous of one another – for dollars, influence, power and reach. And Ike was a believer that the service branches should work together. A turning point was the invasion of Grenada during the Reagan administration, which was one of the first significant military actions since the Vietnam War. Ike explained that the various service branches involved didn’t even have reliable communications between themselves because they never had to do that level of joint communications in a military theater.
Now – and he would point the 2003 example of the invasion of Iraq – the boots on the ground are across the services. And they train together. If you go to Fort Leonard Wood where they have Army engineers training – there are also Navy Seabees training. One of the symbols of jointness that he pointed to with pride when he went into Fort Leonard Wood was a big anchor on display there. That symbolized the Navy on an Army base.
The third thing he pushed – and warned about in his farewell speech in Congress – was what he called a developing chasm between civilian culture and military culture. These people in uniform keep us free. They defend our freedoms. But Ike sensed a growing gulf between the non-military and the military. He was greatly concerned about young men and women – and their families – that were sacrificing to keep us free from attack, invasion and siege.
And for Ike, it was always a matter of pride that he spent the holidays… in theaters of action with Missourians often serving overseas in uniform. And he loved to travel and meet the troops. Ike walked the walk. He talked the talk. And he knew his business when it came to the military.
What was it like for Skelton to be chairman of the House Armed Services Committee during the aftermath of the Iraq War – and beyond?
Charton: Ike spoke to the columnist George Will at the outset of his chairmanship. When asked "what is the mission and role of your committee?" Ike replied, "Oversight, oversight, oversight." And that really was true. He took seriously the prerogatives of Congress in preparing to go to war and being consulted in wartime decisions.
About six months before the invasion of Iraq – and I’m paraphrasing here – he had a meeting with President George W. Bush. A letter is appended in the book in which he tells the president and really cautions him: "Of course I have no doubt that our troops – well-trained, well-maintained and equipped as they are – will be victorious in accomplishing their mission. The question is – what comes next?" He could also be very folksy and he compared it to the proverbial dog chasing the car – "what does he do once he’s caught it?"
As we now look back, that question – basically, what is the exit strategy -- became the burning question. He showed a great deal of wisdom. He could dissent, but there was never any question about his patriotism and commitment to military men and women. He asked good questions; he asked intelligent questions.
If you’ve ever seen the House Armed Services Committee room, it’s a series of curving benches behind which members sit according to seniority. Well, there perched in the center-top seat was Ike Skelton. For many years, he had been in the next seat over as the ranking member. So had been privy to these decisions: the appropriations for the various weapons systems, debates about procedure and protocol of how the military did its job. That was quite a critical role for him. It’s really one that he thought that he had trained his whole life for. And so it was oversight, oversight, oversight.
Many Republican members of the Missouri delegation – including former U.S. Reps. Jo Ann Emerson, Kenny Hulshof and former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond – were very close to Skelton. And it never felt like surface-level pleasantries; it was genuine respect. What prompted those sorts of relationships?
Charton: They knew that he was an honest broker. Politics stopped at the ballot box when it came to national defense, as far as Ike was concerned. That was really an important thing to know about him.
One of his colleagues – former U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California– served as the chairman of the Armed Services Committee when Republicans controlled the House. But he worked very closely with Ike to assure the committee’s work was bipartisan and productive. While I was working as an Associated Press reporter, Duncan Hunter came up to Whiteman Air Force Base. And he told reporters that Ike and he left partisanship at the door when it came to cooperation about national defense.
As I followed up with the memoir, Hunter told me, "'Ike and I were personal friends.' But in the business of tough battles over politics and legislation, those relationships and that mutual respect meant that they constantly tried to find common ground." And he felt that the center of that common ground was the well-being of the armed forces of the United States.
Later, Ike was very glad that Duncan Hunter, Jr. – a U.S. Marine veteran – served on his committee. This young congressman was there – a Republican – talking about his relationship with chairman Ike Skelton.
And Ike was beaming because he knew the young man and his family. These are the kinds of relationships that in our cynical view of Washington now you can’t imagine still exist.
Do you feel those types of relationships are gone now that people like Skelton are no longer in Congress?
Charton: In the memoir… Ike talks about that. When he first came to Congress, as he recalled, the budget was such that they had travel money to go back once a month to the district. Ike prided himself in later years in going back three out of four weekends a month. But … when it was the case of one weekend a month, he moved his family to Washington.
Because many of the other members were in the same situation, there was much more family time. Their children were friends. The stories I loved were about the days when he used to ride to work, as he put it, and carpool – because Ike could not drive. [Former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt] would pick him up. And they’d carpool as well with Republican Congressman Bill Emerson. And he said, "we had the best time in the car and very often we weren’t even talking politics. We were talking about kids and family."
So that crossed party lines because it was personal. And what enjoyable, gracious people Ike and his first wife were. And his second wife – Patty – is a lovely lady. He really hit that jackpot twice in marriage. And in that sense, he considered himself the luckiest of men to have married two wonderful women that could not only tolerate but support a politician.
There is a strong case to be made that Skelton was one of the most influential and important political figures from Missouri in recent memory. What do you think Skelton's legacy is in Missouri and national politics?
Charton: There are two answers to this. One is the professional and public service side. ... While we don’t have congressional term limits in place, just with the fickleness of voters I don’t think you’ll see anybody serve that long in Congress again. Ike served at a time when seniority really mattered. And he was single-minded, like a laser, in his commitment to military matters. He knew that it was important to America.
Ike was known as an honest broker in the congressional process. That’s why he was so revered and trusted. His word was his bond. A lot of that went back to Missouri and Harry Truman's influence, which was really baked into Ike’s DNA. You know, Ike’s father and Harry Truman first met in 1928 when they were both county officials. But Harry Truman also came from a culture of plain speaking and honest dealings – despite the Pendergast connection. Harry Truman had great integrity.
That leads me to the personal side of this. Yes, Ike made a difference professionally. But on a personal note, he is one of those people who were actually personally well liked and respected. He was warm. He encouraged people. The Columbia Daily Tribune printed a letter from a female attorney in Columbia.She had served as prosecuting attorney in Lafayette County, where Ike’s from. She talked about her frustrations in the office – but how Ike always encouraged her. And he always took time to tell her, "Look, I’ve been a Lafayette County prosecutor. I know how tough that job can be. And you can do it. You can make it."
This goes back to what he confronted with polio and trying to rebuild a life. Imagine your life’s dream was crushed, but you found something in the debris of those shattered dreams that would eventually make you an even greater force in accomplishing some of the same goals.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.