The words of members of Congress are many and they offer them to us as their currency. Many times it is a currency devalued by overuse, obvious hunger for attention, partisan silliness or plain irrelevance to most people's lives. Today, Rep. Ike Skelton, outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, offered the nation his final speech from the floor of the House of Representatives and it is a fine speech. No Gettysburg Address perhaps, but Skelton spoke simply and with some eloquence about how polio challenged him, about the dangers our nation faces, about a "hollowed out" political center he fears may hamper Congress' ability to do the crucial job of overseeing and guiding the military. But mostly he spoke to us about the pride and gratitude he still feels after serving in Congress for a remarkable 34 years. That is something worth remembering and thinking upon, especially in these days of fiscal fear when we face two wars.
We offer our readers Skelton's speech in its entirety:
Madam Speaker, I rise today to express my gratitude for the honor of serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and to share a few thoughts as I prepare to leave this distinguished body. About this time 34 years ago, my wife, our three boys, and I were surrounded by scores of well-wishers organized by Bob Welling as we boarded a train in Warrensburg, Missouri, to travel to Washington, DC. Shortly thereafter, I was sworn into Congress. I arrived eager to tackle the problems of the day and represent the people of the Fourth Congressional District. It was a political highlight for me.
The Roman orator Cicero said that “Gratitude is the greatest of all virtues,” and I am grateful to so many people.
First, I am extremely grateful and appreciative to the residents Missouri’s Fourth Congressional District whose votes allowed me to serve as their representative in the U.S. House for 34 years. Representing the Fourth District in the House has been a tremendous privilege.
I also want to thank my family whose support made it possible for me to serve in Washington – Susie, my late wife, my three wonderful sons, and my lovely, understanding, and supportive wife Patty.
I want to thank my friends and mentors in Congress. I can’t name them all, but I want to particularly single out the great Missouri legislators Congressman Dick Bolling, who helped me land a seat on the Armed Services Committee, and Congressman Dick Gephardt and Congressman Bill Emerson, who were my car pool partners and my great friends. I leave with enormous respect for all those Members who worked their hearts out to help people at home and to help steer our country’s path while performing their Constitutional duty.
Finally, I want to thank my dedicated staff, past and present. The talented people who have worked in my Missouri offices, my Washington, DC office, on my Small Business subcommittee staff, and on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee, are the unsung heroes who get the business of government done, and I can’t thank them enough for being part of my staff and serving the American people so well.
I’ve led a charmed life in many ways, but as a youngster I learned that a person’s life can change forever in an instant. After contracting polio, I was fortunate to receive treatment at the Warm Springs Foundation in Georgia. Polio affects each person differently, but all Warm Springs patients learned valuable lessons about life – never let illness define you, never be limited by the expectations of others, never give up, and never stop working. By applying the belief that nothing is impossible if you work hard, thousands of Warm Springs alumni, including myself, have led happy and productive lives.
Growing up, I was inspired by my father’s runs for statewide office and for Congress, and also by his service as Lafayette County prosecuting attorney. I had just completed my own term as Lafayette County prosecutor and was practicing law when President Truman called to ask me to consider running for Congress in 1962. In 1976, I decided to run for Missouri’s Fourth District House seat and I have been on the ride of my life ever since.
It is a great honor to serve in the U.S. House. This House is filled with principled public servants who work hard to give voice to the needs of voters back home. Members of Congress bring the theory of representative democracy to life every time they participate in House business and every time they listen to the hard-wrought concerns of their neighbors.
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I aspired to become Chairman one day. Serving as Chairman is undoubtedly the high point of my political career.The HASC family of Members and staff is very special. Members of Congress lucky enough to serve on this committee have traditionally worked in a far less partisan atmosphere than on other committees. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the obligation to raise and support Armies and to provide and maintain a Navy. All Members approach this important work very seriously, with the goals of protecting our nation’s security and also doing what is right for our men and women in uniform and their families.
American politics through the ages have frequently been rough and tumble, and at times some might even say mean. But to my mind, national security transcends politics. In the realm of national security, we must make the effort to work together in a bipartisan way, to stand before our allies and the world as a united front, to strengthen our nation’s defenses under the banner of consensus.
As Chairman, I have always sought to maintain this bipartisan atmosphere, and I hope the culture instilled by many HASC chairs who served before will carry on under the leadership of the new chair in the coming Congress. I am confident it will.
Throughout our country’s history, the nation has experienced many challenges. We have had economic crises, agricultural hardships, and military engagements, and Members of this body responded to each one as it came along. I am proud to have been a Member of the House of Representatives and I will always cherish my service here.
I leave with some anxiety for the future, however. In the past, this body has worked best after great debates, when men and women of strong principles have met and compromised on those difficult issues, which at the time could render us asunder. But through meeting in the center and solving the problems of the day, our country benefitted. It was able to progress.
As a result of the last election, the center has been hollowed out and more Members will represent extreme points of view, which is likely to make meaningful compromise difficult, if not impossible. Once again, our system of government and our citizenry will be tested, and the outcome will determine, borrowing the eloquent words of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
When returning Members and new Members arrive at the Capitol for the new Congress in January, they will confront enormous challenges as they work to chart the course for our country in the days ahead. These challenges include the economy and jobs, health care, and education, to name a few. But I implore our citizens and our leaders not to forget that we are a nation at war. Unless our government protects our national security, none of these other important issues can receive the attention they deserve.
National security must be our number one priority. I believe all Americans’ good intentions support the troops and their families. But those intentions must be reflected in action – and Congress bears the Constitutional responsibility to fulfill this sacred duty.
My greatest concern is that a chasm will develop between those who protect our freedoms and those who are being protected. I’ve often talked about what I perceive to be a civil-military gap, a lack of understanding between civilians and the military that has grown in the era of an all-volunteer force. For those not in uniform or connected to the military in some way, it’s easy not to relate to our service members’ difficulties as they deal with the trials of war and combat, multiple deployments, family separations, missed birthdays, and other sacrifices too numerous to mention.
As a nation, we must strive to narrow that gap and bring our citizens together. United we stand, divided we fall. The men and women in uniform who form the backbone of our security cannot devote their all to protect us if we fail to provide what they need to perform their missions, stay safe in the field, and take good care of themselves and their families at home. Keeping America safe demands a national commitment to maintain military readiness. During my time in Congress, the United States has been involved in 12 conflicts, some large and some small. If the future is anything like the past, conflicts, natural disasters, and other crises will frequently pop up without warning. Preparedness is essential.
Today’s forces are the latest in a long line of sentinels of freedom. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines must have no doubt about the high value we place on their service. Our commitment to our service members and their families will also help the next generation understand that these patriotic volunteers are critical to the survival of our nation. To protect America’s future, we must inspire the next generation to join the noble service of these ranks.
I’ve always considered each young man and woman in uniform as a son or daughter. They are national treasures and their sacrifices cannot be taken for granted. They are not chess pieces to be moved upon a board. Each and every one is irreplaceable. Issues of national security and war and peace are too important to lose sight of the real men and women who answer our nation’s call and do the bidding of the Commander-In-Chief.
You can’t do the job as a Member of Congress for so many years unless you love it, and I do. It is a labor of love, and to paraphrase my fellow Missourian Harry Truman, I’ve done my damndest every single day. I will be forever grateful for the trust Missourians have placed in me through the years and for the opportunity to serve Missouri’s Fourth Congressional District, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the United States of America.
As I leave this House, these lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” express my feelings very well:
“Much I have seen and known; cities of men
“And manners, climates, councils, governments…
“And drunk delight of battle with my peers…
“Some work of noble note, may yet be done...
“Come, my friends,
“‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
Madam Speaker, thank you for this time and I yield back.