South African President Nelson Mandela at the U.S. Capitol (top) and Sen. Lugar with President Reagan.
South African President Nelson Mandela at the U.S. Capitol (top) and Sen. Lugar with President Reagan.

WASHINGTON - The world has been blessed with an extended opportunity to celebrate the remarkable life of Nelson Mandela and the country he changed as political prisoner and president.

It is hard to believe today, but 27 years ago, the U.S. could have ended up on the wrong side of history had Sen. Dick Lugar not led Republicans - against tremendous pressure from short-sighted conservatives within the Reagan White House – to override President Reagan’s veto of South Africa sanctions.
In 1985, the world was coalescing against the hardline government of South Africa and its practice of apartheid, a racial segregation of the country that gave the 10% white minority control of the country, denying rights to 85 percent of the population.

The Reagan Administration opposed economic sanctions against South Africa. White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan told The Baltimore Sun that divestiture in South Africa would deprive Americans of many raw materials, including diamonds, adding: "Are the women of America prepared to give up all their jewelry?"

Lugar knew the administration was on the wrong course. As the Senator who supported President Reagan on the most votes during the eight-year presidency, Lugar considered opposing the President with a heavy heart. He did so after exhausting every attempt to bring the administration along. Lugar even pulled the bill from Senate consideration in 1985 much to the chagrin of Democrats.

But the administration remained intransigent. By 1986, action could no longer be delayed. Lugar lead a lengthy Senate-House conference committee broadcasted on C-SPAN for all the world to see. Differences were worked out and a consensus held in the face of a presidential veto and intense political pressure from all sides.

On the Senate floor Lugar said, “We are against tyranny. And Tyranny is in South Africa. Tragically our influence may be so limited that the government of South Africa will pursue headlong a course bound to lead to destruction of that government. We are not destroying that government. That government is self-destructing. At this point, as a friend of that government, we are saying, ‘Wake up.’”

The Lugar consensus was overwhelming. The Senate rejected the Reagan veto by a vote of 78-21 and the House did so by a vote of 313-83.

Even though Lugar was Reagan’s top supporter in the Senate, White House officials were not happy. Back at the campaign office in Indiana, some of Lugar’s top donors phoned to withdraw their support, suggesting he was finished in politics. But in fact, two years later he won reelection by record margins and remained in office for another 26 years after his anti-apartheid stance, maintaining the longest run of popular political success in the state’s history.
The anti-apartheid stance that prevailed in Congress, in unity with the rest of world, led to Nelson Mandela being released from prison four years later and elected president just four years after that in 1994.

On a visit to the U.S. Capitol after becoming president, Mandela told Lugar in a private meeting that “there would not be a relationship” between our two countries had Lugar not succeeded in leading the override of the Reagan veto. The U.S. now has an ally in South Africa and influence throughout the emerging economies of Africa.

As he did many other times during his career, Lugar was able to calculate the future and build a winning consensus.
Both Mandela and Lugar succeeded by seeing brighter futures and being determined to succeed with calculated patience, understanding of human nature and a sense of political grace. Mandela laid his life on the line and endured 27 painful years in prison. Lugar risked his political career. Neither backed off from doing the right thing.

The world, in these impatient times, has much to learn from leaders like Lugar and Mandela. Democracy and republican governance counts on individuals like them. Such leadership legacy leaves our world in a better place.

In 1986, Morris was Lugar’s campaign manager, Helmke his press secretary, and Fisher his executive assistant.