Lugar a lawmaker from a different era

May 15, 2012


So in the end he was found wanting. Not partisan enough. Not conservative enough. Not humble enough. Not local enough. Ultimately, Richard G. Lugar, elected to the Senate during America’s bicentennial celebration — a very long time ago — was not modern enough.

Lugar just turned 80. He long ago abandoned his Indiana home if not his Indiana roots. He was that rare lawmaker living in a rarefied world, representing not only his state, not only his country, but also the public interest. In our politics there is a fine line between representing the broader interests and sowing resentment. Lugar did the first for a long while, then the second overtook him.

This is not to say Republicans with a moderate impulse are somehow more patriotic, or more selfless, or more valuable than Republicans of a more caffeinated conservatism. This is merely to say that, when it came to international affairs, especially nuclear proliferation, Lugar thought himself a citizen of the world — not in a haughty way, but in a high-minded way.

That was bred in him — in the study hideaways of Denison University, where he was a standout student, and then in the hushed, elitist halls of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar and schooled in the Oxbridge ethos of service and serene dispassion. He, more than the more famous Rhodes scholar of later years, Bill Clinton, personified the perspective of the middle common room.

Lugar worked to become elite in the days when the word, not always a synonym for snobby, was an object of reverence rather than opprobrium. It was a time when expertise earned was then respected. It wasn’t, however, a time of purity; Lugar was elected in a decade despoiled by Vietnam and Watergate, when men of elite background were derided for being the best and the brightest (and earned that derision), and when most of the experts, particularly in foreign affairs, were wrong.

In that time and in decades to follow — he now is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate — Lugar wasn’t so much the senior senator from Indiana as the senior spokesman for stability. When he entered the Senate, the highest compliment in the Capitol and the fondest measure of conservatism was to say of a lawmaker that he was sound — that he had sound principles, that he had a sound perspective. But, again, that was a long time ago.

Lugar moved from Indianapolis to Washington in 1977 with a heavy burden. He had defeated Sen. Vance Hartke at a time when conservative-oriented Indiana incongruously had two liberal Democratic senators, but he carried an inevitable and unenviable sobriquet in the angry aftertaste of Watergate. He was Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor. But Nixon was gone by then, and soon that description faded away.

Sen. Lugar defied expectations. He wasn’t so much bipartisan as above partisanship. He’d gone to Oxford, but his college there was Pembroke, known for its informality, and his wife, Charlene, known universally as Char, had no patience for the formalities of Senate wives, preserving as inviolate her weekly bowling night.

Lugar had a sunny disposition — no man in either caucus had a smile so permanent as Dick Lugar’s — but he knew deep disappointment. The world didn’t behave with Midwestern rationality.

George H.W. Bush inexplicably chose his junior colleague, Dan Quayle, much underestimated but not as estimable as Lugar, for vice president in 1988. Lugar’s presidential race was regarded as one of those worthy exercises, like Bruce Babbitt’s, that might have prevailed in a more sober era but not in our own. He finished seventh in Iowa in 1996.

Lugar’s rejection last week in a state that voted for Barack Obama for president four years ago is a variation of an oft-told tale.

Some lawmakers go to Washington and adopt its warm colorations, thriving in the policy debates, coming to believe that the whole country is as riveted as they are by the votes of an obscure subcommittee, that it is watching as carefully as they are the feints in the cloakroom and the maneuvers on the floor, that it is as committed as they are to issues beyond their ken, or county.

Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, another Rhodes scholar and Pembroke man, was deceived that way and was defeated that way, too — beaten in 1974 as Lugar was, in a bruising primary. Rep. Al Ullman of Oregon, so powerful as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that he was one of the men to see in Washington, was upended in 1980. Speaker of the House Thomas Foley of Washington lost his bid for a 16th term in 1994.

Then there was Sen. Albert Gore Sr. He was a lion of the Senate, thinking himself more a national politician than a lawmaker from Carthage, Tenn. He was defeated in 1970 by GOP Rep. Bill Brock, a loss that devastated him and left an indelible impression on his son, who was for a time repelled by politics, offended by its ungracious caprice.

All committed the crime of going native in the capital.

Lugar will leave the Senate in January with garlands of praise from both sides of the aisle; the man, after all, lived in the aisle, then paid for it. He will be regarded as a symbol of old virtues, and lawmakers with highly paid speechwriters almost certainly will find themselves uttering the old Hamlet chestnut that they will not see his like again.

Maybe in a brighter time they will. Maybe Richard Mourdock, now Indiana’s Republican nominee for Senate, will emerge as a lawmaker of stature and soundness, much like the man who sent Fulbright unceremoniously into retirement. His name was Dale Bumpers, and he was admired by Republicans and Democrats alike. It can happen.

— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


cato_the_elder 6 years ago

"All committed the crime of going native in the capital."

And that's one of the reasons why all of them, including Lugar, became poster children for term limits.

The time for meaningful term limits is now.

Orwell 6 years ago

Yeah. Time to get rid of anyone who doesn't hate the other side enough.

Whatever happened to "United We Stand?"

cato_the_elder 6 years ago

Ask Barack. He ran as a "uniter," but has been the most divisive president in memory, constantly pitting one group of Americans against another solely for perceived political gain.

Mixolydian 6 years ago

To an independent, that's the perception he conveys..

Mixolydian 6 years ago

Considering that the congressional approval rating is almost in the single digits, this isn't a surprise at all. What's surprising is that it's not happening more.

Cait McKnelly 6 years ago

Sounds like it was time for him to retire anyway. May he enjoy all of his retirement benefits, health insurance and perks paid for by our taxes. I'm sure his stock portfolio is fat from all of those years in Washington. I am totally against the idea of career politicians. If he wanted a career in government he should have joined the diplomatic corps.

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