Still making a difference after 50 years in D.C.

Fifty years have passed since then-National Commander William R. Burke of California called to order what he envisioned as "a small convention in Washington ... to demonstrate to both the Congress and our executive and administrative leadership the size, scope and the importance of The American Legion." That vision enters its sixth decade this week.

Eight days of American Legion activities - including a service-officer school, job fair, business workshop, campus symposium, panel discussions, speeches, ceremonies, presentations and personal visits to Capitol Hill - continue through March 3 during the 50th Annual Washington Conference. The Commander's Call, featuring remarks by members of Congress and other top government officials, will be streamed live on from 8:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, March 2, from the Washington Renaissance Hotel.

2010 Washington Conference

The 2010 conference agenda closely mirrors the spirit of Burke's plan in late 1960 to consolidate several mid-winter American Legion commission and committee meetings into one big event shortly before the organization's March 15 birthday each year.

Burke told the Legion's National Executive Committee during the Fall Meetings of 1960 that various gatherings of the Rehabilitation, Economic, National Security, Foreign Relations and Legislative commissions, for instance, typically required elected and appointed government officials to return again and again over a few weeks to deliver similar messages to different groups within the nation's largest veterans service organization. The NEC heartily agreed that a bigger, better-focused conference would deliver a more unified Legion message.

The First Annual National Commander's Conference - as it was called then - occurred Feb. 25 - March 3, 1961, at the historic Statler Hilton Hotel. The Statler had made history a few years earlier when Legionnaire and hotel magnate Conrad Hilton purchased it for $111 million, at the time the most money paid in a single real-estate transaction since the Louisiana Purchase.
Among the annual highlights of the Washington Conference each year are two prestigious American Legion awards - the Distinguished Public Service Award, given to members of Congress who exemplify the values of the Legion; and the National Commander's Public Relations Award, given to members of the media and/or entertainment.

At the first Washington Conference, NBC received the Public Relations Award (see list below). Network Chairman Robert Sarnoff and news anchor David Brinkley were on hand to receive it. Also at the first conference, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina addressed the National Security Commission on the importance of the ROTC program. Famed Army historian S.L.A. Marshall met with Legionnaires on the inaugural event, as did U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

At the Second Annual Washington Conference in 1962, Commander Charles Bacon presented President John F. Kennedy with the Legion's Distinguished Service Medal in a ceremony at the White House. In 1963, the first Distinguished Public Service Award (see list below) presented at the Washington Conference went to Rep. Carl Vinson, D-Ga., who was the first person to serve more than 50 years in Congress and a strong voice for national security.

The First Annual Washington Conference ultimately had the effect Burke wanted. Some 1,700 - including approximately 400 U.S. lawmakers - attended the National Commander's Banquet during the event, which was themed "The American Legion in America's Future," and was built around establishing new directions and policies for the organization as it entered one of U.S. history's most tumultuous decades. "The American people enter the 60s - the Decade of Decision - determined to restate and reaffirm the purposes and principles to which we the people are dedicated," Burke had written in his welcome message for the conference. "No one has a clearer mandate nor more solemn obligation to participate in the restatement of American purpose than those who laid aside their safety in order that the national purpose might be safeguarded."

His words are as relevant today - as Legionnaires, lawmakers, VA officials, national-security leaders and others once again gather in Washington this week and next - as they were a half-century ago.

Past Distinguished Public Service Award recipients: Rep. Carl Vinson, Ga., 1963; Rep. Olin Teague, Texas, 1966; Sen. Everett Dirksen, Ill., 1967; Rep. John McCormack, Mass., 1968; Rep. Leslie Arends, Ill., 1972; Rep. George Mahon, Texas, 1973; Rep. F. Edward Hebert, Ala., 1974; Sen. Strom Thurmond, S.C., 1975; Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Wash., 1977; Rep. Joe Waggonner, La., 1978; Rep. Ray Roberts, Texas, and Sen. Alan Cranston, Calif., 1979; Rep. Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, 1980; Rep. Jack Kemp, N.Y., 1981; Sen. John Tower, Texas, 1982; Rep. Bob Michel, Ill., 1983; Sen. Howard Baker, Tenn., 1984; Rep. Jim Wright, Texas, 1985; Rep. Neal Smith, Iowa, 1986; Rep. Jamie Whitten, Miss., 1987; Rep. Edward Boland, Mass., 1988; Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery, Miss., 1989; Rep. Bob Traxler, Mich., 1990; Sen. Sam Nunn, Ga., 1991; Sen. Arlen Specter, Pa., 1992; Sen. John Glenn, Ohio, 1993; Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Md., 1994; Rep. Bob Livingston, La., 1995; Sen. Bob Dole, Kan., Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah, and Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon, N.Y., 1996; Rep. Henry Hyde, Ill., 1997; Sen. Olympia Snowe, Maine, 1998; Sen. John Warner, Va., 1999; Sens. Larry Craig, Idaho, and Robert Byrd, W. Va., 2000; Rep. Bob Stump, Ariz., 2001; Rep. Ben Gilman, N.Y., 2002; Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Calif., and Rep. John P. Murtha, Pa., 2003; Rep. Christopher Smith, N.J., 2004; Rep. Michael Bilirakis, Fla., 2005; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Texas, 2006; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Calif., 2007; Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas, 2008; Sen. Charles Grassley, 2009.

National Commander's Public Relations Award recipients: NBC, 1961; Parade Magazine, 1962; Lyle C. Wilson, UPI, 1963; U.S. News & World Report, 1964; Radio Corporation of America, 1965; ABC, 1966; American Newspaper Publishers Association, 1967; Jack Valenti (Motion Picture Association of America), 1968; Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., 1969; Red Skelton, 1970; Brig. Gen. Daniel James, Jr., U.S. Air Force, 1971; Lowell Thomas, 1972; Jack Anderson, 1974; Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, 1975; National Association of Broadcasters, 1976; Karl Malden, 1977; Stanley Roger (Stan) Smith, 1978; James H. Webb, Jr., 1979; Paul "Bear" Bryant, 1980; Bill Monroe and Betty Cole Dukert, 1981; Sarah McClendon, 1982; Eunince Kennedy Shriver, 1983; "Real People" television program, 1984; ABC Sports, 1985; John Walsh, 1986; Secretary of Education William Bennett, 1987; LaPrensa, opposition newspaper, Nicaragua, 1988; Lee Greenwood, 1989; Richard Severo and Lewis Milford, 1990; Kevin Dobson, 1991; Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, 1992; Gordon Gund, 1993; Bill Mauldin, 1994; Jack Smith, 1995; James Kimsey, 1996; Justin Dart, Jr., 1997; Tom Brokaw, 1998; Alan Keyes, 1999; Heather Renee French, 2000; The Wal-Mart Corp., 2001; NASCAR, 2002; Wayne Newton, 2003; Donald P. Bellisario, 2004; Tim Russert, "Meet the Press," 2005; John "Sgt. Shaft" Fales, 2006; Extreme Makeover Home Edition, 2007; Lou Dobbs, 2008; Ben Stein, 2009.