Ike Skelton was an example of a particular breed of Missouri Democrats who were moderate-to-liberal on economic issues, conservative on social ones and strong defenders of the military.
It was that last interest that led Skelton, who died Monday at the age of 81, to say that “undoubtedly the high point of my political career” was becoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Deprived of his own dreams of a military career by a bout of polio when he was a teenager, Skelton still graduated from Wentworth Military Academy in his hometown of Lexington, Mo., and wielded considerable influence on the military as a member and ranking member of Armed Services before becoming chairman in 2007, a position he held for four years.
Although his left arm was permanently crippled by polio, Skelton ran track while he was a student at Wentworth. “I cut an unusual figure because both of my arms were taped to my sides and my fists were inserted into slits in my running shorts, securing them from flailing around while I ran,” Skelton wrote in a newly published autobiography, “Achieve the Honorable.” He added: “A snapshot of me in this configuration, running on the track toward the camera, is a treasured Skelton family memento. ... I drew confidence from it.”
He played a key role in developing the Goldwater-Nichols Act to force the independent military services to work better together and emphasized military education to better train new generations of officers.
Strongly supportive of the military, Skelton fretted about how its power was used. He voted for President George W. Bush’s request for authority to go to war against Iraq even though he couldn’t get the assurances he wanted of how the administration would deal with the aftermath.
Skelton was born into politics. His father served as local prosecuting attorney (a job Skelton would later hold himself), ran unsuccessfully for higher office and made friends with an aspiring politician named Harry S. Truman.
That Truman angle would play a prominent role in developing Skelton’s political career. At the age of 17, Skelton and his father attended Truman’s 1949 inauguration, and it was Truman who suggested Skelton run for Congress in 1962. Skelton, who had just gotten married to his first wife, Susie, chose to continue practicing law with his father. Susie died in 2005 and Skelton remarried four years later to Patricia Martin. When Skelton ran for Congress in 1976, he was endorsed by Bess Truman and a strong rural vote propelled him to victory. He was rarely challenged in succeeding years until he was defeated in the 2010 GOP wave by Republican Vicky Hartzler.