“Give ‘em hell” reads the red battle flag of the USS Harry S. Truman, a replica of which is draped on the wall of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton’s Washington office.
The flag hangs inches away from Mr. Skelton’s office window, where the Capitol dome takes up much of the view, and is a paean to Truman, his fellow Missouri Democrat and political hero.
The three-word mantra sums up nicely the political situation of the 17-term lawmaker, who finds himself in the center of the debate over a string of politically sensitive issues, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the future of health care, in which Mr. Skelton is not always in line with the majority in his own party.
Truman “was likable, he did not suffer fools and he was smart as a whip,” Mr. Skelton said in an interview. Truman was deeply unpopular at the end of his momentous presidency, “but history has treated him very well.”
As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the 77-year-old Mr. Skelton has been one of the key lawmakers the White House has consulted as President Obama decides whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. While many on the party’s liberal wing are leery of escalating the war, Mr. Skelton has emerged as perhaps the most prominent Democratic hawk in Congress on the conflict.
Mr. Skelton stands firmly with U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, backing the general’s call for tens of thousands of more U.S. troops and setting a goal post on the right in the intraparty Democratic debate.
A bout in his teens with polio left Mr. Skelton unable to serve in the military, but his affinity for and support for those who serve is long and deep. He often recalls seeing C-47s in the skies above his hometown of Lexington — where he still lives — practicing maneuvers ahead of the impending D-Day invasion.
He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq but emerged as one of the leading congressional critics of the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the post-invasion military and political fallout.
In weighing the way forward now in Afghanistan, he said he takes into account the toll the lengthy conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on today’s generation of warriors.
He recounted the tribulations of one Army Ranger from his district who has been deployed 10 times since 2001, typically for three to four months at a time.
The key to bringing the troops home means winning the wars overseas, Mr. Skelton insisted, even though that may not be the quick and easy way.
“We have to have a sense of ‘mission accomplished,’ and that’s beginning to happen in Iraq , but Afghanistan is still a long way away,” he said.
That stance puts him at odds with many in his own leadership in the House, as well as with such powerful voices as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who have voiced skepticism about Gen. McChrystal’s ambitious request.
Asked about the rifts in his party, Mr. Skelton acknowledged, “There’s a war-weariness.”
The clamor between supporters and skeptics of Gen. McChrystal has led some to compare today’s rift to the split that led Truman to fire his top commander in the Pacific, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in the middle of the Korean War.
Understandably, Mr. Skelton rejects the parallel.
“They’re entirely different — MacArthur was engaging in a different policy than the president,” Mr. Skelton said, calling for an aide to bring him a copy of the telegram his father sent to Truman shortly after the political battle ended.
Framed is a copy of the telegram from April 13, 1951, supporting the president’s decision to relieve MacArthur of command. An April 14, 1951, reply from Truman, thanking the senior Skelton for his support, hangs adjacent to the telegram.
According to Michael Barone, editor and co-author of the comprehensive “Almanac of American Politics,” Mr. Skelton can lay good claim to being the most authentic “Harry Truman Democrat” in Congress, compiling a moderate-to-conservative voting record reflecting the rural, mostly small-town district he represents.
Mr. Skelton’s father, a Lafayette County prosecutor, was an old political ally of the future president, and Mr. Skelton himself attended Truman’s 1949 inauguration when he was 17. After earning a law degree at the University of Missouri and a six-year stint in the Missouri state Senate, Mr. Skelton won his first race for Congress in 1976 aided by the endorsement of Bess Truman, the president’s widow.
The recent shooting at Fort Hood in Texas was wrenching for the Missouri lawmaker, and he praised the dedication of the men and women who have been fighting in two of the nation’s most extended engagements. The House panel he heads could find itself with a major role in probing the incident, but Mr. Skelton, a former prosecutor, has told reporters he wants to let the military investigation proceed first.
“We need to avoid jumping to any conclusions and give the Army and the FBI a chance to do their jobs,” he said in a statement.
“It is important that we get to the bottom of this incident, but we must be careful to proceed in a deliberate, studied manner that will not interfere with the ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI and the Armys criminal investigative service.”
Of all the Hill’s senior Democratic power brokers, Mr. Skelton represents one of the nation’s “reddest” congressional districts, at least by presidential vote tallies: Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona beat Mr. Obama by 23 percentage points in 2008 and former President George W. Bush beat Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in 2004 by 29 percentage points.
Still, Mr. Skelton has handily won re-election since first taking the seat in 1977, most recently besting his Republican opponent by 32 percentage points.
But representing the sentiments of his district has often put him at odds with the positions pushed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats. He supported an amendment offered by a fellow pro-life Democrat to tighten federal rules on funding abortions, but in the end voted against the health care reform bill that passed on a razor-thin 220-215 tally earlier this month.
“While the legislation on the House floor tonight was a vast improvement over earlier versions,” he said after the vote, “…I am not convinced that the legislation represented the best policy choice for the American people.”
He said he had doubts about the so-called “public” insurance option — a favorite idea of the party’s liberal wing — and about the impact the House bill would have on funding for hospitals in more rural areas such as his district.
But that vote earned Mr. Skelton some criticism back home, as about a dozen supporters of the local liberal group Grass Roots Organizing staged a protest outside his district office in Jefferson City.
Mr. Skelton may face another delicate political debate over the future of the military’s “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy for gays in the service. Many prominent congressional Democrats have pressed to curb or eliminate the policy. Mr. Skelton has pledged to hold hearings on the policy when the Armed Services panel takes up the next defense authorization bill, but to date no hearings have been set.