BY CARMEN SIERING
Although he represented Indiana from 1965 to 1999 in the United States House of Representatives, served as vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, and still has many friends among the elite movers and shakers in the nation’s capitol, when former Indiana Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, 84, sat in the East Room of the White House waiting to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, his thoughts might well have been those of any ordinary citizen.
“I was seated next to Stephen Sondheim, and I was close to Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand. What was going through my mind was, ‘What in the world am I doing up here with this group?’”
At the White House reception and November 24 ceremony, Hamilton and his guests — nine family members and his assistant — mingled with the the other recipients and their guests, taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and chat with those others who also received the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“I talked at some length with Willie Mays, a baseball hero of mine,” Hamilton says. “Willie Mays made one of the most amazing catches in the history of baseball in the 1954 World Series. He was playing center field. The ball was hit over his head and he ran charging toward the center field wall, held his glove out, and the ball plopped in the glove. I’m not even sure if he looked behind him. Any baseball fan of the era will remember The Catch. And as soon as I mentioned it to him, he smiled.”
While he may be a big baseball fan, Hamilton’s not a big moviegoer. Still, he took the time to talk to one of America’s most prolific and successful film directors and producers. “I had a very nice visit with Steven Spielberg. He’s an engaging person. I told him I had seen two movies in the theater in the last 40 years and one of them was Lincoln, and he appreciated that,” he says, laughing. “He said that was a labor of love. I gathered by that that it didn’t make a huge amount of money like some of his other films.”
Hamilton also talked to Barbra Streisand before she quickly slipped out. “I’ve been told, and of course I don’t know, that she’s shy,” he says. “She’s a very good friend of Steven Spielberg, so they chatted, but I didn’t speak with her for more than just a couple of minutes.”
He also spoke with 97-year-old Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who has aided every major space program from Project Mercury through the Space Shuttle program. “When I met her, I knew I was out of my league. Mathematics has never been a strong point of mine,” Hamilton says. “Of course I had been supportive of the NASA program over a period of years, so I expressed my appreciation to her for the role she played.”
One Hamilton family member had a night she will never forget. “My granddaughter, Lena Kremer, is a sixth grader,” says Hamilton. “President Obama leaned over, as soon as he saw her, and asked her her name and what year she was in. She told him she was in a Montessori school, and he knew all about Montessori schools, of course, so he chatted with her for a few minutes and she was quite thrilled of course, not only to be in the White House, but to get special attention from the president. I think she’ll remember that for quite awhile.”
And so will Lee Hamilton. “One of the very rewarding features of receiving this award was the opportunity of visiting with the other awardees,” he says. “Overall, it shows the diversity of America, the talents we have in fields other than politics.”