Lugar at the National Defense University in Washington, December 2012
Larry Downing / REUTERS

The giants of the twentieth century are falling in rapid succession, and the United States recently lost another. Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, who died last month, was the quintessential public servant—principled, effective, selfless. He was unafraid to do the right thing for his country, even when it was not popular with his party. His skillful legislating, grounded in a willingness to compromise, resulted in an extraordinary record of accomplishments, ranging from preserving the federal school lunch program to fighting HIV/AIDS to strengthening nuclear security. The United States and the world are safer and better off because of Lugar’s work.

Less than three weeks before he died, I had the privilege of publicly honoring Lugar. Asked to give the keynote address at the Richard G. Lugar Symposium in Public Policy at his beloved Denison University in mid-April, I spent some cherished time with Lugar, laughing as heartily as ever. The senator was walking a bit more slowly than when last I saw him, but otherwise he was in fine form—his sharp mind and warm wit on full display.

I first met Lugar some 25 years ago, when we served together on committees to select Rhodes Scholars. Before meeting him, I had admired him from afar as the courageous statesman who, in 1986, led Congress to override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. That same year, Lugar persuaded the Reagan administration to recognize the election of Philippine President Corazon Aquino, who defied widespread election fraud to oust the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

Lugar’s greatest achievement, however, was the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, which he co-authored with Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia. The act provided millions of dollars to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction left behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The programs it created have deactivated over 7,600 nuclear warheads and destroyed over 2,600 nuclear missiles and their launchers, along with thousands of tons of chemical and biological weapons. Those results were the product of Lugar’s deft persuasion of his skeptical colleagues that spending American dollars to help a former enemy was in the best interests of U.S. security.

Lugar’s greatest gift to America was his belief in the country’s essential goodness and the decency of its people.

I admired Lugar the senator, but it wasn’t until we spent significant time together that I got to know Lugar the man. He was gracious, collegial, funny, and self-deprecating. We hit it off over our shared interest in finding more diverse, qualified candidates for the Rhodes scholarship, agreeing to be on the lookout for people of different racial, religious, ethnic, and ideological backgrounds. He had me high-fiving him with equal vigor when we chose worthy conservative candidates as when we did women of color. Only later did I appreciate that my modest experience with Lugar encapsulated how he got so much done in Washington—forging unexpected alliances with people who disagreed with him on specific policies but could embrace a higher, common mission.

It was in this spirit that, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar took a freshman senator from the other party and the state next door under his wing. Barack Obama gained a friend and a mentor in Lugar as they traveled to Russia together, visiting sites secured by Nunn-Lugar funds. Obama’s passion for nonproliferation and nuclear security grew under Lugar’s generous tutelage, and later Obama was able to rely on Lugar’s crucial support to ratify New START, the strategic arms reduction treaty that Obama negotiated with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2010.

As much as Lugar gave in service to his country—his time in the navy, his two terms as mayor of Indianapolis, his 36 years as a giant of the Senate—Lugar’s greatest gift to America was his belief in the country’s essential goodness and the decency of its people. Lugar understood that the United States is greater than the sum of its parts and that what unites Americans is far more fundamental than what divides them. The senator also knew that his political opponents were patriots, not enemies—that when people treat each other with kindness and respect, no matter how different their backgrounds and persuasions, they can accomplish important things in the national interest. 

At Denison, I concluded my tribute by saying that I “wish there were several Richard Lugars left in Washington today, because our country would be in much better shape.” Lugar embodied the servant-statesman of a bygone era, when lawmakers came to Washington to roll up their sleeves and get stuff done. It was a time when Congress defended its Article I authorities, championed the rule of law, and took its legislative and oversight responsibilities seriously. It’s tragic to acknowledge how rare those traits now are among Lugar’s former colleagues in the Senate. Still, Lugar’s example will endure as a powerful reminder of what Washington looks like when it works and of the traditions of comity and collaboration that one must hope might yet be restored. 

  • SUSAN E. RICE served as U.S. National Security Adviser from 2013 to 2017 and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013.
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