Mark Schoeff Jr.: Working for and believing in Lugar
Thursday, December 13, 2012 5:44 AM
WASHINGTON - Over the two decades that I’ve been in Washington, I’ve encountered scores of students and young people who aspire to a vocation in politics. When they ask me for advice on how to navigate Capitol Hill, I always begin with the same guidance: believe in the person for whom you’re working.
I am surprised by the number of congressional staffers who are lukewarm toward their bosses. It’s clear that they’re serving on his or her staff because they love politics and they want to be part of that compelling game in a place where the stakes can be the highest. Their member of Congress is sort of a vehicle to get them to where they want to be.
Although that approach can satisfy a political ambition, it also can lead to a cynical place. Instead, I advise them to do what I did – join the staff of someone whose public service you believe is critical to the country.
That’s what I experienced in my more than five years on the staff of Sen. Richard Lugar. I was hired as Lugar’s deputy press secretary in 1992 and was promoted to press secretary in 1995. I was in each position for almost exactly two-and-a-half years.
I was fortunate enough to work for Lugar during one of the most exciting times of his career. Among other things, from 1992-97, he chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee and championed an original and creative farm bill that would fundamentally reform U.S. ag policy and reduce federal spending.
I had a front-row seat as Lugar continued to build the Nunn-Lugar program that has eliminated thousands of weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union and around the world.
In addition, Lugar ran for president in 1995-96, when he offered the country a substantive agenda to make it safer and more prosperous. He was prescient during that campaign in warning that we must prepare for a terrorist attack on our own soil.
Protecting Americans against our worst nightmare was always at the forefront of Lugar’s agenda. One of the most memorable moments of my career was also one of my longest days on Capitol Hill. I arrived as usual around 7:30 a.m. near the end of my time on Lugar’s staff in May 1997. Lugar, by the way, was always in the office even earlier. That particular day was the one that Lugar managed the vote on a chemical weapons treaty. I headed home just before midnight.
Across those hours, Lugar spoke on the Senate floor and did the tough political work required to secure a victory for the weapons agreement. It wasn’t a sexy issue. In fact, despite the news releases we launched through the day, I doubt many reporters – or their audiences – were paying particularly close attention to what Lugar was doing.
That effort, however, illuminates the essence of Lugar’s public service. He was putting everything he had into making the world safer for America. It took commitment, diligence, skill and great intellectual capacity – everything that Lugar offers to Hoosiers and all Americans every day.
One of my favorite occasions while working for Lugar was to be invited into his office when he would tell the staff his decision on a particular issue. It would give us our marching orders for explaining his stance to reporters, constituents and colleagues. During those moments, it was a privilege it was to see true leadership firsthand.
I had little to do with Lugar’s success during my time on his staff. I just tried to make a positive contribution to helping communicate the importance of his work. One of the ironies of being a press secretary is that it’s best to work for a politician who doesn’t actually need one.
The reward of working for Lugar was not what I accomplished but rather the history that I witnessed. My rule for a good job is one in which you write something and learn something every day. Both goals were satisfied during my Lugar tenure.
One reason that my experience was such a good one is because Lugar was consistently out in front on issues. He would dissect and eloquently describe how to address them. That’s how he continues to operate at the end of his Senate career. In his valedictory speech on Dec. 12, Lugar was incisive in analyzing what has gone wrong with politics and leadership in Washington.
“[W]e do our country a disservice, if we mistake the act of taking positions for governance,” Lugar said. “They are not the same thing. Governance requires adaptation to shifting circumstances. It often requires finding common ground with Americans who have a different vision than your own.”
Lugar excelled in practicing that type of governance. We can only hope that his congressional colleagues listen and do likewise.
Lugar said that he hesitated “to describe our current state as the most partisan ever.” But without Lugar in the Senate, we’re at risk of devolving further into divisiveness.
For Lugar’s University of Indianapolis students who aspire to work in politics, I have a piece of advice: Choose a boss like your professor.
Schoeff is HPI's Washington correspondent.