Lee Hamilton doesn’t have a surefire formula for the success of this nation, but he has a surefire formula for its failure.
“It’s for you to back away,” he said. “It’s for you who have given so much to this community to disengage. It’s for this nation to become a nation of spectators.”
Hamilton, who represented Indiana in Congress from 1965 to 1999, was the keynote speaker for the 13th annual O’Bannon Institute for Community Service fundraising dinner Thursday night at Ivy Tech Community College’s Bloomington campus.
The O’Bannon Institute is three days of activities aimed at giving the community an opportunity to come together and discuss topics related to nonprofit organizations, education and political and civic service. It’s named after the late Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon, in recognition of the role he played in the formation of Indiana’s community college system and in commemoration of his lifetime commitment to community service. The dinner is Ivy Tech Bloomington’s annual signature fundraiser.
Hamilton, who is also a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, told the audience of more than 350 people that, at a time when government, especially at the federal level, is not functioning the way many people would like, responsible citizenship is needed now more than ever.
“You and I have to up our game,” he said.
To show what responsible citizenship looks like, Hamilton talked about a couple in Clark County who, after their daughter was killed in a car accident at a railroad crossing, made it their goal to get flashing lights at every railroad crossing in the state.
“They’ve largely succeeded,” he said. “But there’s still more work to be done.”
He told the story of a diabetic man who pleaded with him for food labeling legislation so he could tell how much sugar was in the food he was buying. He said that man joined a mighty chorus of citizens that changed the way we buy food today.
“I went to the grocery store the other day,” Hamilton said. “And just for the heck of it, I counted people reading labels. I lost track after 15 or 20.”
He told the story of a 90-year-old neighbor who planted a young sapling in his family’s yard when Hamilton was teenager. At that age, the neighbor knew he wouldn’t see the sapling mature.
“But it taught this teenager,” Hamilton said, referring to his younger self, “about the responsibility of ‘we, the people’ to make our corner of the world better for others.”
Hamilton concluded his speech by talking about some of the things he’s heard presidential candidates say recently. He said he’s heard them make claims that this country is heading into the abyss. They paint a bleak, gloomy picture of a nation lost and in decline, he said.
Hamilton told the crowd he doesn’t buy into that view. He said he believes this country’s best days are still ahead, but they won’t come on their own.
“There’s not an invisible hand down here guiding us. It’s not written in granite that we’re always going to be number one,” he said. “You and I as citizens have to step up. This is our time. This is our opportunity. This is our century. A new era. The citizens’ century.”