Remembering Richard Lugar

Elegy for an American Giant

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

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