Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Richard Lugar: Statesman

April 30, 2019
Richard Lugar: Statesman
Richard Lugar. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The death of former Indiana senator Richard Lugar forces us once again to also note the passing of what he represented: statesmanship in our era of partisan tribalism.

Even hearing the word “statesman,” seems anachronistic, even jarring, at a time when our news cycles are dominated by Twitter rants and our politics by win-at-all cost gamesmanship.

But we were once fortunate to have political leaders who were willing to work across the aisle to solve major problems. The Washington Post accurately describes the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which dealt with the danger of post-Soviet nuclear proliferation as “among the most successful congressional foreign policy initiatives in a generation.” Wrote the Post:

Mr. Lugar was an accomplished politician, but he did not see every day in the Senate as another round of partisan jockeying. Rather, he wanted to solve the big problems of the era. His was a voice of reason and bipartisanship during six terms in the Senate, including two stints as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. In today’s environment of “weaponizing” every issue to advance party and ideology, Mr. Lugar’s example should remind all that public service ought to mean rising above personal consideration in the interests of the country and the world.

We agree. But also can’t help remembering how he was purged from the GOP by the party’s rising outrage machine. In 2012, Lugar was targeted by the Club for Growth, Freedom Works, the NRA, and other activist groups for his ideological sins that included support for immigration reform, his votes to confirm two of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, some gun control bills, and the START treaty. The groups pumped millions of dollars into Indiana to defeat him.

After 36 years in the Senate, Lugar was beaten in the primary by Indiana’s state treasurer, Richard Mourdouck, who would go on to lose the seat in November by more than five points to Democrat Joe Donnelly after he opined that women who had gotten pregnant by a rapist was carrying a “gift from God.”

After Lugar’s defeat, Chris Chocola, then the president of the Club for Growth exulted that Lugar’s ouster “truly sends a message to the liberals in the Republican Party,”

But Lugar was never a liberal. As George Will noted at the time, Lugar had supported Ronald Reagan 88 percent of the time, “more than any other senator.”

Yes, Lugar voted for Barack Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, but there is a conservative case to be made (conservatives make it when they have the presidency) for deference as the default position regarding presidents’ judicial choices. Yes, Lugar voted for the New START treaty, but all living Republican ex-secretaries of state supported it, including George Shultz, who served Ronald Reagan. Shultz has endorsed Lugar (“Reagan relied on him”).

Critics point out that Lugar had lost touch with the party’s grassroots and ran a poor campaign. But his defeat also marked a shift in our politics.  As Will noted, “Lugar’s courtliness and Midwestern aversion to rhetorical flamboyance do not match this moment of fevered politics.” His defeat in the primary also marked a shift in Republican politics. In post-Tea Party America, reported Reuters, “words like ‘compromise’ and ‘bipartisanship’ that were once considered virtues are now reviled as vices by a conservative insurgency intent on taking over the Republican Party and moving it further to the right.

That was seven years ago, but Lugar—along with John McCain and George H.W. Bush—now seems like a figure from another time:  a man of honor and service who put his country first. Is it naïve to hope that other Republicans now in office would someday follow his example?