Lee Hamilton, Carla Cohen, and Washington's Dialogue

One stands for the "dialogue of democracy"; the other for a dialogue between authors and readers.

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Washington is losing a wise man--and has just lost a wise woman this autumnal month. Lee Hamilton and Carla Cohen, characters of the city, each enlightened life within its walls. One stands for the "dialogue of democracy"; the other stood for a conversational dialogue between authors and readers. They belong to the same very smart (but small) American generation, born in hard times in the 1930s.

Hamilton, hale and hearty at 79, is going home to Indiana after serving 34 years in Congress and a dozen as director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a post he will leave later this year. The Center is a civilized bridge between academics, policymakers, ambassadors, authors, and journalists (of which I was one in 2009-2010) and was created as the living memorial to Wilson, a president of Princeton before he entered politics. For Hamilton, the former House Foreign Relations Committee chairman, the storyline is simple: He and his wife are leaving to live in Bloomington, a vibrant university town, closer to roots and family. It's a tradition almost as old as the republic.

"I wish someone could tell me where all the years have gone," Hamilton told 500 friends at a farewell fete in the soaring architecture of the National Portrait Gallery. The gathering brought past and present members of the "People's House." And when I say friends, I mean the outpouring clearly came from the collective heart. It's rare to witness, but you know a wave of love for a public man when you feel it: a standing ovation by the 20 ambassadors, the lilting '40s melodies performed by the "Singing Hoosiers,” the gray-haired eminences choke back tears. The evening seemed like the waning of an era.

Hamilton, the man from Indiana, reminds me not a little of Abraham Lincoln in his tall stature and penchant for storytelling. He likes to note Lincoln lived in the Indiana backwoods as a boy before moving onto Illinois. Sporting a crew cut, easy manners, and a sparkle in his eye, he never got "stuck-up" as they say in the Midwest. He's "Lee" to everyone. That goes a long way with heads of state as well as hard workers in the Wilson Center kitchen. At lunch, he's likely to sit at an informal round table cutting through the fog of foreign policy or the daily headlines. There he made a newcomer feel as welcome as an old-timer.

You may remember the painful September 11 Commission hearings. Hamilton was appointed vice chair of that National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The government investigation, hearings, and final report was one of the finest deeds of public service in our time. Strenuous, exhaustive, and dispiriting as it was, the process helped to bind the nation's wounds, to borrow a bit from Lincoln. The chair, Thomas H. Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey, attended the Hamilton farewell gala to say good-bye. 

Did I mention that Hamilton is a Democrat? He's a close adviser of President Obama and yet one of the last Washingtonians to really have friends across the aisle. It would be in the national interest for him to continue serving on the president's Intelligence Advisory Board. He brings a breath of bipartisanship to this divided city--and Washington does not have a wise man to lose.

Carla Furstenberg Cohen, founder of the Politics and Prose bookstore, died earlier this week at age 74. Her obituary ran on the front page of the Washington Post, a woman's life story seldom seen there in this town, like Saturn circling the sun. Then again, everyone knew Carla by her first name and Carla knew everyone--by name or by face. She knew I lived in Baltimore for a spell as a reporter and in turn I knew that was her hometown. I could still see the Baltimore girl and young woman in her, somehow. Her cherished patch of northwest Washington felt like a smaller town's neighborhood salon, a place you might run into an old friend or love lost. The cafe downstairs was an excellent place to repair in those circumstances; with any luck you'd overhear the poetry group reading. 

Her deep grasp of community, politics, and books resulted in scores, then hundreds, of authors making a pilgrimage to speak at Politics and Prose. Everything was personal and direct with Carla, who had a maternal authority and eyes that missed nothing in one's character on the page or in person. She treated authors pretty much the same, the best-sellers and the first-timers, when they came to visit. She made them feel special.

In closing, Lee Hamilton elevated the official dialogue of democracy in the Capitol and elsewhere, while Carla Cohen tended to her own blooming democratic garden uptown. I wonder whether these exemplary Americans ever met.

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