The rich, black soil of central Illinois has produced a remarkable crop of principled public servants who have risen to national prominence and have had a profound impact on our country and our world. The following principled leaders all have deep roots within 50 miles of Peoria.
Though often overlooked, President Abraham Lincoln served one term in Congress (1847-1849), representing 11 counties in central Illinois including Marshall, Mason, Tazewell and Woodford. It was at the Peoria County courthouse on October 16, 1854 where Lincoln resurrected his political career with a brilliant speech laying out for the first time publicly his objections to the extension of slavery. Lincoln’s “Peoria Speech” served as the position paper against slavery for the newly formed Republican Party across the country. During his three-hour, impassioned speech, Lincoln stated, “Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it, in his love of justice.”
An even lesser known historical fact is that at one point the top leader in the United States Senate hailed from Havana in Mason County. Scott Lucas grew up on an impoverished tenant farm, supported himself at Illinois Wesleyan University by stoking furnaces and established himself as a country lawyer in Havana after graduation. In 1934, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and soon became an advocate for farmers and working people. Lucas then ran successfully for an open seat in the U.S. Senate in 1938, defeating a candidate supported by the Chicago political machine. Lucas was instrumental in helping Harry Truman narrowly win the 1948 presidential race, and shortly thereafter his colleagues unanimously elected him to be the Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate and Chairman of the Democratic Conference.
As fate would have it, it was former Congressman Everett Dirksen from Pekin, who, in 1950, would unseat Senator Lucas. Dirksen also quickly rose to national prominence, and in 1959 was elected Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate. He played the pivotal role in securing passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act and, for his courageous statesmanship, adorned the cover of Time magazine. Indeed, President Lyndon Johnson, who was facing serious opposition from Southern Democratic senators, gave Dirksen the credit for his principled leadership in passing the Civil Rights Act. In Dirksen’s eloquent remarks, which helped secure the support of 25 of 33 Republican senators, he stated:
“I trust that the time will never come in my political career when the waters of partisanship will flow so deep as to obscure my estimate of the national interest….The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied.”
This same bipartisan leadership approach was followed by U.S. House Minority Leader Bob Michel, who served with great distinction in Congress for 38 years and is credited for shepherding President Ronald Reagan’s tax reduction policies and strong defense policies through the Congress. The only way Michel was able to accomplish such monumental legislative achievements was by reaching across party lines to obtain the support of Blue Dog Democrats. Michel firmly believed that the House floor was a place for reasoned debate among colleagues equal in dignity, and conducted himself as such.
Michel’s successor, Congressman Ray LaHood, has done an excellent job of carrying on the rich tradition of principled congressional leadership for the 18th Congressional District. LaHood’s fair-handed demeanor enabled him to chair the House of Representatives during debates on critical issues, including the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton. LaHood has led efforts to establish a higher civility and bipartisanship in the House, and in 1999 Congressional Quarterly named him one of the 50 most “effective members” in Congress. Locally, Congressman LaHood conducts regular meetings with state legislators from both parties to work together on important regional projects like a new Cancer Center, the Peoria Riverfront Museum and restoring the Illinois River.
Of course, President Ronald Reagan worked his way through Eureka College and his Midwestern values served as a strong foundation for his outstanding public service career. Through his stalwart leadership, Reagan helped end the Cold War without a shot being fired and he was known to be kind even to his political adversaries.
It is truly amazing that all of these national leaders have strong ties within a 50 mile radius of Peoria, sharing common backgrounds and values. They each came from humble beginnings, worked hard and are known for their integrity. They treated the common man and colleagues from both political parties with respect, and they fought to promote individual and civil liberties. They are not perfect men, and much can be learned from their failures as well as their triumphs.
This year, two premiere educational institutions, Bradley University and the Dirksen Congressional Center, have joined forces to launch the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service. The Institute’s mission is to educate ethical, collaborative and bipartisan leaders for successful careers in public service. Fortunately, we have a legacy of principled leadership from the heart of Illinois that serves as a great foundation for the Institute.
On the evening of Friday, April 27th, the Institute will hold its kick-off banquet celebrating the outstanding congressional leaders that have served the Peoria area. Both former Congressman Bob Michel and Congressman Ray LaHood will participate, in addition to many other elected officials and community leaders. If you are interested in attending please contact me at 677-4408 or e-mail me at [email protected]. IBI