Former U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton dies at 81
Former U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton — a titan in Missouri politics who gained a national reputation for his expertise in military affairs — has died.
The Associated Press reported that Skelton died Monday at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., surrounded by family and friends. He was 81.
No official cause of death was given, but news reports say that Skelton entered the hospital a week ago with a bad cough.
A native of the west-central Missouri town of Lexington, Skelton served 17 terms in Congress representing central and southern Missouri. Renowned for his expertise in military affairs and national defense, Skelton’s influence and clout reverberated throughout the Show-Me State and the nation.
Skelton lost his seat in the 2010 election to Republican Vicky Hartzler of Harrisonville, amid a huge GOP wave nationally. At the time, he chaired the powerful House Armed Services Committee.
Skelton had been a member of the Armed Services Committee since 1981, an assignment that proved beneficial to Whiteman Air Force Base and Fort Leonard Wood, both of which were in his district during part of his tenure.
Because of Skelton, Whiteman — 70 miles southeast of Kansas City — became the home base for the B-2 bomber. And Fort Leonard Wood, near Waynesville, Mo., eventually became a major training base for various branches of the military.
After becoming the committee’s ranking member in 1998, Skelton became chairman of the Armed Services Committee once Democrats recaptured the U.S. House after the 2006 election. He sought to increase oversight of President George W. Bush’s administration and the Pentagon in the violent aftermath of the Iraq War.
Although Skelton voted to authorize force against Iraq in 2002, he became increasingly pessimistic about the Bush administration's ability to stabilize the country.
Skelton’s keen interest in history became entwined in his professional career. His "National Security Book List” became required reading for politicians, military officers and those interested in national security matters.
During a 2007 standing-room-only address at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Skelton said it was particularly important for military leaders to get a firm grasp of history to prepare for future battles.
"Every war and conflict needs to be examined as if it were in a petri dish," he said at the time.
Encouraged by Truman
A tall man with a quiet, dignified manner — and a dry wit — Isaac Newton Skelton IV became attracted to politics through his father’s friendship with Harry S Truman. Skelton's father met Truman when the future president was a Jackson County presiding judge. At 17, Skelton attended Truman's 1949 inauguration.
Skelton long sought to follow in his father’s footsteps in the military, but he contracted polio during his teenage years. The summary of his autobiography noted that he received treatment in Warm Springs, Ga., where President Franklin D. Roosevelt had his “Little White House" in the 1930s and 1940s.
While he had limited use of his arms for the rest of his life, Skelton eventually recovered enough to be a celebrated college athlete. However, driving a car was difficult. For years, he was driven to the Capitol daily by fellow Democrat Richard A. Gephardt, D-St. Louis, who became a close personal friend and political ally.
Skelton received a degree in history and a law degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He was elected to the Missouri Senate in 1970, where he oversaw a wholesale overhaul of the state’s criminal code.
Truman had encouraged Skelton to run for the U.S. House in 1962. He declined then, but when the state's 4th congressional district seat became open in 1976, Skelton entered and won a crowded primary — winning by a wide margin.
Bess Truman, the former president's widow, had endorsed Skelton.
On aggregate, Skelton was viewed as a moderate to conservative Democrat. He opposed gun control and abortion rights. He was a supporter of the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy relating to gays in the military.
But he opposed President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981 and Bush’s tax cut proposal in 2001, saying such measures were fiscally irresponsible and noting the budget deficits that soon followed.
Meanwhile, Skelton's 4th District, which stretches from mid-Missouri to the Kansas border, had gradually become more Republican. While GOP presidential candidates would rack up more than 60 percent of the vote in the counties encompassing that district, Skelton rarely faced credible Republican challengers and usually won by hefty margins.
Even so, Republican leaders long predicted that their party would capture Skelton's post once he retired. The GOP's chance came earlier than expected with Hartzler's surprise win in 2010. Hartzler’s upset made national news and epitomized a rough year for Democrats nationally and in Missouri.
After he left Congress in 2011, Skelton joined the Kansas City-based Husch Blackwell law firm. President Barack Obama named Skelton to the World War I Centennial Commission.
Skelton was married to Susan Anding for 44 years until her death in 2005. In 2007, the University of Missouri honored Anding with a memorial garden on the east side of Carnahan Quadrangle.
He married a longtime family friend, Patty Martin, in 2009. She survives, along with three sons: Ike Skelton V, James Anding Skelton and Harry Page Skelton.
Flood of praise
National and Missouri political leaders from both parties heaped praise upon Skelton after news of his death became public.
Gov. Jay Nixon said the state flag will be lowered next Monday, Nov. 4, to honor Skelton's life and service.
Obama said in a statement that Skelton "was beloved and respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle." The president added that "as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Ike was a devoted advocate for our men and women in uniform."
"To many in Congress and across Missouri, Ike was a mentor and a friend, and he will be missed," Obama said.
And U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a statement that Missouri "lost a giant tonight.”
"Ike Skelton represented the very best of Missouri, and fought tirelessly for the state he loved. Those of us lucky enough to call him a friend know that he lived the Missouri values of compromise and common sense,” McCaskill said. “And in his half-century of service, he showed how Missouri could be a leader in contributing to the safety and security of our nation. I join all Missourians in sending my thoughts and prayers to Patty and the rest of Ike’s family. I’ll miss him dearly.”
Former U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., said, "Ike was a friend, a champion for Missouri, and a dedicated defender of our national security and men and women in uniform. He will be remembered for his service to our state and country."
Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Roy Temple said in a statement that Skelton was “a Missourian, a statesman and a champion of a strong and sensible national defense.
"And above all, he was a gentleman. His love of and faith in America was unshakable and his support for the U.S. military was second to none,” Temple said. “This is a loss for Missouri and the nation.”
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in a statement that it “was a great privilege to serve Missouri in the Congress with Ike Skelton and to benefit from his friendship and advice.
"No member of the Congress was more dedicated to America's defense and those who defend us than Ike Skelton,” Blunt said.
Nixon, a fellow Democrat, said in a statement that Skelton “inspired us all with his quiet dignity and tireless commitment to America’s men and women in uniform.
"A friend to Missourians, Americans and liberty-loving people worldwide, Congressman Skelton embodied the true meaning of public service and will forever be remembered as a leader who left a legacy of greater prosperity and security for his district, our state and our nation,” Nixon said.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, also a Democrat, praised Skelton as "a patriot who always put the defense of our nation at the forefront of his service in Washington. I was honored to be represented by him as my congressman for many years, and I will always regard him as the model of a true public servant who places duty before self.”
Hartzler said in a statement that she was "deeply saddened at the passing of my predecessor and respected friend, Ike Skelton."
"I have appreciated our conversations over the past two and a half years and the commitment we shared to see Missouri's 4th District prosper," Hartzler said. "I am thankful for Ike's tireless efforts on behalf of our men and women in uniform and know our country is safer as a result of his unwavering leadership."
U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said Skelton “was my mentor and among my closest colleagues when I first came to the U.S. House.
"Ike Skelton was a champion for his district, the state of Missouri and for every brave American who wore the uniform of this country,” Clay said.
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, lauded Skelton as "a true giant of Missouri history, tireless defender of veterans and a man of great integrity who was a consistent voice for the brave men and women of our armed forces."
Former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, called Skelton "a sage mentor, an exemplary statesman and an inspiration to me and to many in the U.S. Congress.
"Ike demonstrated the generous spirit and principled leadership that rose so far above partisanship that we could not help but become friends," Emerson said. "I was struck by the depth of his convictions -- Ike came to southeast Missouri to support Emerson campaigns despite our membership in opposing parties — and by the depth of his faith — we attended prayer breakfasts together on a weekly basis in the House of Representatives, and I would pick Ike up and drive him in on those Thursday mornings."