Ike Skelton, a conservative Democrat who represented Missouri in the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years, died Monday in Arlington, Va. He was 81.
Skelton died at Virginia Hospital Center, surrounded by his wife, his sons and their families as well as longtime colleague Russell Orban, who confirmed the death. The cause was not immediately released, but Orban said Skelton entered the hospital a week earlier with a bad cough.
Skelton was a military expert who served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and was a protector of military bases in Missouri.
“He was a great friend...he had absolute, total, thorough integrity,” Vice President Joe Biden tweeted Monday night.
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Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called Skelton “a role model to whom I had the honor of presenting Missouri’s highest military honor, the Conspicuous Service Medal. Ike 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.
House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland called Skelton “an extraordinary American”
“And I had the privilege of serving alongside him in Congress for nearly 30 years where I saw his compassion, his humility, and his deep-rooted Missouri values up close,” Hoyer said. “Ike was an incredible soul, a caring man who loved service and championed all who gave of themselves for their country and communities.”
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican, also praised Skelton.
“No member of the Congress was more dedicated to America’s defense and those who defend us than Ike Skelton,” Blunt said. “He loved our country and its history and will be remembered for his contributions to both.”
Said Missouri Democratic Party chairman Roy Temple: “He 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. This is a loss for Missouri and the nation.”
Lexington was Skelton’s hometown. He was first elected prosecutor in Lafayette County and served in the Missouri Senate before going to Washington in 1976, the year Jimmy Carter took the White House.
Skelton represented Missouri’s 4th Congressional District in the western and central part of the state. He easily kept his seat for 17 election cycles in a district and state that increasingly trended Republican.
Skelton was a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat who voted against the Affordable Care Act.
He was defeated in 2010 by Republican state lawmaker Vicky Hartzler, who had strong tea party backing.
“Ike exuded civility,” said Richard Martin, a long-time Democratic consultant. “He had great friends on both sides of the aisle. All the Democrats I ever met looked up to him despite their differences they often had with him on issues, and Republicans as well.
“He was a statesman -- not a highly charismatic guy. He didn’t aspire to run for higher office. Once he was elected to the Congress and assigned to the Armed Services Committee, I think he knew that was his calling, and he was going to make the most of it.”
Skelton served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee from 2007 to 2011. Skelton also served on the Small Business Committee as subcommittee chairman for Procurement, International Trade and Technology.
He once described his role as the Armed Services chairman with a single word, repeated over and over: “Oversight, oversight, oversight.”
As Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster was losing its cache of long-range nuclear missiles, Skelton secured its future in the late 1980s by getting the Defense Department to place the new B-2 bomber there.
After redistricting made Skelton the representative for Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood in 1983, he helped locate the Army Engineer, Chemical and Military Police Schools at the base. The number of troops undergoing training there more than quadrupled and the post’s mission expanded from the Army to all branches of military service.
“I live and breathe what I do,” Skelton told The Kansas City Star in 2010. “I enjoy every minute of it...I know I’ve made a difference.”
In the 1980s, Skelton played a key role in passing the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which created the joint commands. He worked to improve housing and facilities for service members and their families. He was critical of both the first Bush administration and President Clinton’s policies of cutting military spending too much.
Skelton was deeply skeptical of the Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq. His chief concern was that an ongoing occupation would be difficult. But he still voted for the war resolution when Bush sent it to Congress.
“I have no doubt that our military would decisively defeat Iraq’s forces and remove Saddam (Hussein),” Skelton said then. “But like the proverbial dog chasing the car down the road, we must consider what we would do after we caught it.”
Isaac Newton Skelton IV was born Dec. 20, 1931. His father met future President Harry Truman in 1928 when the elder Skelton was the Lafayette County prosecutor and Truman was a Jackson County judge, and they remained friends for life, The Almanac of American Politics reported.
At 17, the younger Skelton attended Truman’s 1949 inauguration following his upset defeat of Thomas Dewey.
Skelton dreamed of going to West Point but he got polio as a teenager, which made his left arm useless and made him ineligible for military service. He remembered walking down the street in Lexington in 1944 watching C-47s fly overhead pulling gliders, training pilots for D-Day.
Skelton graduated from the University of Missouri and its law school and returned home to Lexington to practice law. At 25, he became county prosecutor. Five years later, in 1962, Truman urged him to run for Congress, but Skelton opted to continue practicing law with his father.
Skelton entered politics in 1970 when he was elected to the state Senate. Six years later, he ran for Congress where he caught a break. In the Democratic primary, two candidates from Jackson County split 45 percent of the vote, allowing Skelton to emerge as the winner with 40 percent. In the general election, he defeated the mayor of Independence, Richard King, with 56 percent of the vote.
Skelton’s first wife, Susan Anding, died in 2005. He remarried in 2009, to Patricia Martin of Lexington. His sons are U.S. Navy Capt. Ike Skelton V, James Anding Skelton and Harry Page Skelton.
After losing his seat in Congress, Skelton joined the law firm of Husch Blackwell of Kansas City as a partner, advising the firm in Kansas City and in its Washington D.C. office. He maintained homes in Lexington and in McLean, Va.
Skelton was most recently elected chairman of the National World War I Centennial Commission.
Orban, who served 16 years on Skelton’s congressional staff and recently joined him practicing law in Husch Blackwell’s Washington office, said the former lawmaker had been especially pleased by presidential appointments to that commission and to the American Battle Monuments Commission, which is in charge of U.S. military resting places overseas.
In 2012 he received the Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Award.
Skelton had been scheduled to appear at a Veterans Day tribute the afternoon of Nov. 11 at the Truman Library in Independence, as part of a program that bore his name. He was to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony with retired Gen. George W. Casey Jr.