Richard Lugar and Sen. Todd Young speaking at Indiana University.
Richard Lugar and Sen. Todd Young speaking at Indiana University.
WASHINGTON  — When I would return home to Fort Wayne from Washington while working for Sen. Richard Lugar, I would frequently find myself talking politics the moment I mentioned my boss.

Folks would express frustration with what was happening in the capital and, occasionally, blame it on the Republican Party. I politely reminded them that I worked for Lugar, not the GOP.

During his 36 years in the Senate, Lugar was a Republican and conservative stalwart. He voted with President Ronald Reagan more than 95% of the time and was a reliable ally of each Republican occupant of the White House as well as GOP Senate leaders.

But Lugar was a brilliant and independent thinker who would defy his party – and political convention – when it was necessary to achieve policy breakthroughs to benefit the country and the world.

Despite his strong backing of Reagan, Lugar veered away from him on the issue of applying sanctions on the government of South Africa. Lugar played a key role in enacting sanctions, which ended apartheid.  

He drew Republican ire when, as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he pursued reforms of the Department of Agriculture that included streamlining its sprawling field office structure. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia., decried Lugar as a “Lizzie Borden.” I remember Lugar’s uphill battle against USDA bloat because I was his Senate press secretary at the time.

In the midst of a political atmosphere that was dominated by domestic policy and health care in 1991, Lugar joined then-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., to author the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, which led to the destruction of thousands of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.

Lugar’s partnership with Nunn was the most prominent of countless examples of his ability to reach across the aisle. In his post-Senate career, he launched the Lugar Bipartisanship Index to assess how lawmakers work with the opposite party and to encourage more of it.

In the days since Lugar died, many people have praised the example he set. I was reminded of what Gene Robinson, a former Episcopal bishop, once said in a sermon at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. He pointed out that it’s one thing to be an admirer of Jesus. It’s much harder to be a follower of Jesus.

Let me be clear: I am not comparing Lugar to Jesus. But the tension that Robinson illustrated applies to Lugar’s legacy. It’s a lot easier to be an admirer of Lugar than a follower of Lugar. If you’re a follower of Lugar, you have to be politically courageous and have the ability to put aside politics.

Those who aspire to be the next Lugar have their work cut out for them.

In a touching Senate floor speech, Hoosier Republican Sen. Todd Young, a former Lugar aide, called Lugar “the gold standard.”

“We should all look to Dick Lugar,” Young said. “We should all learn from his example.”

Young’s counterpart, GOP Sen. Mike Braun, said in a floor speech about Lugar, “I do intend to do what he did. He stuck his neck out. He led.”

But a couple months before his death, Lugar joined 24 other former GOP lawmakers in signing a letter to congressional Republicans urging them to vote in favor of a joint resolution to end President Trump’s border emergency declaration. They argued that Trump was circumventing congressional authority.

“We who have served where you serve now call on you to honor your oath of office and to protect the Constitution and the responsibilities it vested in Congress,” the letter states.

Young and Braun both voted against the resolution and in support of the border emergency declaration. Becoming the object of Trump’s wrath – or the wrath of the party base he controls – can be painful. But tough votes are a requirement for followers of Lugar.

You also need to rise above the bitter partisanship that often grips Washington.

“He was a very successful politician, but the rare one who managed to come to work every day not thinking about politics,” Dan Diller, a longtime key Lugar Senate aide and policy director at the Lugar Center, said in an April 28 NPR interview the day Lugar died. “He really believed the United States could be governed with civility and with compassion.”

In a similar vein, an April 29 Washington Post editorial said: “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.”

Perhaps followers of Lugar will emerge and make Americans proud of their government again. But no one will be exactly like him.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever see another Dick Lugar,” Young said. 

Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.