Ike Skelton, congressman who led House Armed Services Committee, dies at 81


Former congressman Ike Skelton, shown here at right shaking hands with Gen. David Petraeus in 2007, died at 81. (Jason Reed/REUTERS)
October 29, 2013

Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who became known during his 34 years in the U.S. House as one of the military’s most forceful advocates on Capitol Hill, died Oct. 28 at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. He was 81.

His son, Ike Skelton V, confirmed the death of the former congressman but did not disclose the cause.

A former county prosecutor and state senator in Missouri, Mr. Skelton was elected to the House in 1976 and quickly became known for his expertise, ardor and sensitivity in matters related to the military. As a young man, he had hoped to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., but was stricken by polio, largely lost the use of his arms and was ineligible for military service.

In the House, Mr. Skelton joined the Armed Services Committee in 1981 and became chairman after the Democratic takeover of the chamber in 2006. Four years later, Mr. Skelton lost his seat to Vicky Hartzler, a Republican who was backed by the tea party movement and who continues to represent the sprawling district in western Missouri.

Mr. Skelton’s seniority gave him considerable influence in Washington at a time of deep controversy over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While consistently emphasizing his support for the troops, he emerged as a prominent critic of President George W. Bush and his administration’s prosecution of its military campaigns.

In a 2004 profile, The Washington Post described a conversation between Bush and Mr. Skelton, then the Armed Services Committee’s ranking Democrat, about six months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“What are you going to do once you get it?” Mr. Skelton asked Bush, referring to the country then ruled by Saddam Hussein.

“We’ve been giving some thought to it,” Mr. Skelton recalled the president responding.

Shortly after that meeting, Mr. Skelton sent the president a letter quoting, among others, Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker who admonished that in war one should not “take the first step without considering the last.”

(Mr. Skelton could be as folksy as he was erudite. In another passage of the missive, he told Bush: “I have no doubt that our military would decisively defeat Iraq’s forces and remove Saddam. But like the proverbial dog chasing the car down the road, we must consider what we would do after we caught it.”)

Mr. Skelton continued to criticize what he regarded as the Bush administration’s failure to sufficiently plan for the complex and costly task of occupying Iraq. In hindsight, the congressman’s warnings about Sunni-Shiite conflict, troop fatigue and other struggles seemed to some observers hauntingly prescient.

Isaac Newton Skelton IV was born Dec. 20, 1931, in Lexington, Mo. His father served in the Navy during World War I before becoming a county prosecutor, a post that allowed him to meet Harry Truman when Truman was a county judge. Mr. Skelton’s father befriended the future president and took his young son to Truman’s inauguration in 1949.

Mr. Skelton contracted polio in high school. While attending Lexington’s Wentworth Military Academy & College, he recovered enough of his mobility to participate in the track team. He learned to write with his right hand, his son said, but with great effort.

After receiving an associate’s degree from the military academy in 1951, Mr. Skelton received a bachelor’s degree in 1953 and a law degree in 1956, both from the University of Missouri.

He became Lafayette County prosecutor and later practiced law with his father before winning election to the Missouri Senate in 1970. When Mr. Skelton ran for the U.S. House six years later, he received an endorsement from former first lady Bess Truman.

Over the years, Mr. Skelton became so entrenched in his district that some of his campaign signs read, simply, “Ike.” He held conservative positions on issues such as gun control and abortion rights but was best known for his military work.

He was credited with supporting and redirecting resources to defense installations in Missouri including Whiteman Air Force Base — which became the home of the B-2 bomber — and Fort Leonard Wood.

Mr. Skelton supported new weapons systems and generous defense spending, speaking critically about how equipment was sometimes “worn to a nubbin.”

After his reelection defeat, Mr. Skelton worked for the law firm Husch Blackwell. He had homes in Lexington and in McLean, and recently completed an autobiography, “Achieve the Honorable.”

Mr. Skelton’s first wife, the former Susan Anding, died in 2005 after 44 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife of four years, Patty Martin Skelton of Lexington; three sons from his first marriage, Navy Capt. Ike Skelton V of Vienna, Army Col. James Skelton of Fort Meade and Page Skelton of Chapel Hill, N.C.; two brothers; and five grandchildren.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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