People in my line of work typically don’t have many friends in the political world, but during my years in Indiana in the 1990s, I had a cordial working relationship with Dick Lugar, the state’s longest-serving senator who recently passed at age 87.
I was comfortable referring to him as “Dick,” opposed to the more formal “Richard.” And he thought enough about me to give me a call and wish me well as I was leaving the Herald Bulletin in Anderson for the Idaho Statesman 20 years ago. That was my last contact with Lugar.
I was better acquainted with him when I was reporting and writing editorials with the New Albany Tribune, a small-town daily across the bridge from Louisville. The Tribune, with a circulation of around 6,000 (if you counted the house pets), was hardly a national beacon for political reporting. But I frequently made the effort to “localize” some of the national stories of the day, and Hoosier politicos were my best sources.
I had a special interest following him during his run for the GOP presidential nomination in 1995-96. I saw Lugar as the brightest bulb in the race, by far, but he had too many things working against him. He launched his campaign in April of 1995, the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, so he didn’t gain much news coverage. Second, his lead issue was a call for a national sales tax, which conservative-minded Republicans treated as poison ivy. Third, Republicans were scared out of their wits after Pat Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary, so they put their resources behind a safer choice, Bob Dole.
My respect for Lugar did not change. He was one of a short list of people I’ve known who had the brains to be president and the ability to serve effectively as secretary of state for any administration, Republican or Democrat.
“I concur with your judgment,” said Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – a position that Lugar once held. “The stuff that has been written about him (after his death) is all clear. He was a very bright guy and one of the most civil human beings I’ve ever met.”
Lugar was no stranger to playing political hardball. At one point, Lugar served as head of the National Republican Senate Committee and his sole job was to get Republicans elected at the expense of Democrats. That’s as rough as it gets in politics, and Lugar was not a light touch.
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“When it came to elections, he was political,” Risch said. “But serving here he was one of the most non-partisan, bipartisan and apolitical people that I’ve ever met. And that was in all aspects to what he did, not just foreign policy. It’s difficult to find anybody who will say anything bad about him … we all aspire to conduct ourselves in a civil manner and be seen as decent human beings. He certainly falls into that category.”
Risch, appropriately, paid tribute to Lugar in a recent committee meeting.
“At the top of the long list of his accomplishments is his work on nuclear non-proliferation in former Soviet countries,” Risch told the committee. “Our world is safer today because of his signature legislation, which was no easy feat. He was a true statesman and will always be remembered as such.”
The first time I was introduced to Lugar was at a New Albany restaurant, and within minutes I realized that I was talking to the most intelligent man I’ve ever met. Just about everything he was saying, and the way he was saying it, was flying over the head of this Silver Valley boy.
Then it dawned on me that I had found the “perfect” political source – one who was congenial, knowledgeable and accessible. That’s a home run for anybody in this business. A grand slam homer, in fact. Future conversations with him were much more relaxed.
A year or two after we met, Lugar invited me – of all people – to speak at one of his annual seminars for high school students. I doubt if I said anything profound to the students in the breakout class, but I was honored to be asked and he graciously thanked me for my participation.
It meant a lot to me 20 years ago when Lugar made his goodwill call, so now it’s my turn. RIP, Dick Lugar. I dare to say that the collective IQ in heaven went up a few notches upon his arrival.