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In final House speech, Skelton warns about partisanship, gap between military and civilians

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2010 - WASHINGTON - Worried that "the center has been hollowed out" of Congress as a result of last month's election, U.S Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., warned in a valedictory speech Wednesday that the right-left polarization "is likely to make meaningful compromise difficult, if not impossible."

In his farewell speech to the U.S. House, where he has represented Missouri's 4th District for 34 years, Skelton -- the respected chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the dean of Missouri's congressional delegation -- also expressed concerns about what appears to be a growing disconnect between the U.S. military and civilians.

"My greatest concern is that a chasm will develop between those who protect our freedoms and those who are being protected," Skelton said in an at times emotional farewell speech. "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."

The tall and normally soft-spoken Skelton told his House colleagues that "we must strive to narrow that gap and bring our citizens together. United we stand, divided we fall."

Skelton, who was first elected to Congress in 1976, was defeated last month by conservative former state Rep. Vicky Hartzler after a tough and at times bitter campaign. In an appearance in Missouri in mid-November, Skelton told journalists that he had been the victim of a "political tsunami" that had swept out many accomplished House Democrats, including two other committee chairs.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among the many well-wishers who had called him after the election results were known. "A lot of my colleagues, God love them, called," he said, "and a lot of good friends."

Skelton will retire from the House when the new Congress convenes in early January but has left open future options for service to the country.

He said Wednesday that "I leave with some anxiety for the future . . . 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."

Skelton said "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.'"

The congressman from Lexington, Mo., said that "you can't do the job as a member of Congress for so many years unless you love it, and I do."

His voice breaking a bit, he said, "It is a labor of love, and to paraphrase my fellow Missourian Harry Truman, I've done my damndest every single day."

Those in the House chamber gave Skelton a standing ovation after his speech, which his staff said would be the last of his congressional career. Among those who greeted him afterward in the chamber was U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who gave him a hug.

Other members of the Missouri and Illinois congressional delegation had high praise for the man they called "Ike." Said U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis: "He was my first friend in the House, and I'll miss him."

U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said, "There is not a more decent, hard-working, accomplished member of the House of Representatives. He's been a great mentor and friend. He has a career of accomplishments for Missouri. He's been the driving force in terms of developing Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman Air Force Base. They would not be what they are today without Ike Skelton.

"Nationally, he will always be admired as such a champion of our troops and the whole concept of military readiness, in its broadest sense."

U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, said Skelton "has been a tireless leader for our men and women in the military, and has respect and admiration from both sides of the aisle. In addition to being a leader, Ike has always been a true gentleman in every sense of the word. We will all miss him in the 112th Congress."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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