He was an obscure lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve when he was activated for the 1990 Gulf War, where he served as a legal adviser at prisoner-of-war camps. The Democratic incumbent, Rep. Jim Jontz, had voted against the war resolution and it was that vote that propelled Buyer to an 18-year career in Congress. It ends this month as Buyer does something relatively rare: walking away from Congress undefeated.
Not many Hoosiers have that distinction. Govs. Doc Bowen, Bob Orr and Frank O’Bannon never lost an election, nor did U.S. Sens. Evan Bayh and William Jenner, and congressmen and women like Lee Hamilton, John Myers, Charlie Halleck, Ray Madden, Bud Hillis, Julia Carson and Tim Roemer.
During his unblemished election record, Buyer became an ardent and effective defender of G.I. Joe. “When we did away with the draft, the nation turned to men with no military service,” Buyer said of the American ruling class at a reception in his honor last week. With only about one percent of Americans carrying the service and combat burden these days, few understand that these men and women “serve their country and even do a difficult combat tour and then they come home and get about their lives,” Buyer said.
The “values and virtue” of the modern American warrior is “humility,” Buyer explained. Many keep the most trying details of their service to themselves. Buyer’s congressional tenure was devoted to making sure our country takes care of those who serve. In 1994, Buyer successfully cosponsored legislation that allowed the Veterans Administration to compensate Gulf War veterans suffering from chronic disabilities. (Buyer himself was probably exposed to chemicals during his Gulf deployment and suffered from an array of maladies.) In 2000, he pushed the enactment of the TRICARE program that gives military retirees a menu of health care options available to federal civilian employees.
Buyer made a career of ensuring that the VA cares for veterans after learning of a comatose warrior who had maggots in his nose and the unflattering portrayal of the service in the movie “Born on the Fourth of July.” Buyer explained, “I vowed to change that. It is a great hospital system today. It has cost us a lot of our treasury to do that.”
“I felt it was important to hold on tight to our veterans,” Buyer said. “We have an obligation to help them get on with their lives. We are saving those who would have been lost in other wars. What I love about America right now is that we recognized the pains we went through during the Vietnam era and we decided we’re not going to do that now.”
Buyer’s other historic mark came in tandem with President Bill Clinton. Serving on the House Judiciary Committee in 1998, he played a prominent role in the House impeachment of Clinton. “Should we ask the members of the armed services to accept a code of conduct that is higher for troops than for the commander-in-chief?” Buyer asked.
A year before impeachment, he opposed Clinton’s use of U.S. troops as peace keepers in Bosnia at a time when another Hoosier congressman – Democrat Rep. Frank McCloskey – twice in a holiday reception urged Clinton to act (“Bomb the Serbs, Mr. President, it will make you feel better.”)
“I jammed him and he was very upset,” Buyer said of Clinton after passing a resolution that specified that U.S. troop deployment to Bosnia should not be a prerequisite for a peace agreement. In an “audience of one” at the White House, Buyer and Clinton hashed it out. “You look out the window and I look out the window and you see the world completely different than I do,” Buyer told Clinton. He pledged to be the President’s “constructive critic.”
Clinton, in turn, asked Buyer to “Help me help the country.” The pair, joined by Republican Sen. Bob Dole and Democrat Joe Lieberman, subsequently journeyed to Bosnia and agreed to draft a “timeline for civil limitation” for the Dayton Accords that ended the genocidal war in Bosnia.
Buyer draws a distinction between Clinton, who had “executive experience,” and President Obama, who had little before his presidency. “He did do some good things for the country,” Buyer said of Clinton, “he also messed some things up. There were some things he was wrong (about) and I was right; I was wrong and he was right. That is kind of what our political system does right.”
As the reception in his honor drew to a close, Buyer thanked Gov. Mitch Daniels for his support when the governor said he had turned to the congressman for advice before returning to Indiana. Buyer then produced an elephant hook given to him early in his career by the late Republican national committeewoman Betty Rendel of Peru, the Circus City. The retiring congressman urged Daniels to take his vision back to Washington.
(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)