I moved from Indiana the day Richard Lugar died. This was a mere coincidence, of course, but a telling one. Not only did Lugar’s political breakout mark my adolescence in Indy (aka ‘Naptown’ for those old enough to remember), his career typified the reasoned moderation whose steady disappearance from the Hoosier scene made my own departure inevitable. Although not a Boomer himself, Lugar addressed the most perplexing issues facing that generation with intelligence and fairness. He was a nerd but also an ambitious politician. Naturally, he ended up running for President–in an era before every Senator felt obliged to try–but he proved to lack the charisma of JFK or even Bob Dole. In Indianapolis, where I spent first my ‘wonder years’ and recently another decade as a teacher, his reputation rests on his two terms as mayor, 1968-1975, when he brokered the deal called “Unigov,” which set the foundations for the city’s metropolitan dreams.
What leads the mayor of a small conurbation in middle America to contemplate sitting in the Oval Office? Lugar’s life before politics affords some hints. An outstanding student, he showed an eagerness to do the work: Eagle Scout, head of his class both in high school and at Denison University, Rhodes Scholar at Pembroke College, Oxford, and president of the student body there. He served in the Navy, becoming an intelligence officer on an admiral’s staff. One of his former protege’s, Mitch Daniels, describes him as a “tireless in the pursuit of duty.” The habit was acquired early.
Back in his hometown, Lugar was elected to the school board and supported efforts to desegregate, an unpopular position. At age 35, defeated the incumbent to become mayor. His signature achievement, Unigov, is controversial to this day. Passed by the State legislature, it enlarged the city’s boundaries and tax base, but it also allowed several urban enclaves to ‘opt out’ of municipal services and, most pointedly, the Indianapolis Public Schools. It is sometimes seen as an unprincipled compromise with the forces of reactionary racism for the sake of local boosterism–but overnight it put Indianapolis on the map. In the 1970 Census, Indy emerged as the 11th largest city in the country, rising from 26th in 1960.
Unigov also earned Lugar recognition as a rising young Republican during the Nixon administration. In 1972, he was a keynote speaker at the party’s convention, introduced by Ronald Reagan. In Congress, where he was the longest-serving Senator ever from Indiana (1977-2013) and soon came to enjoy the freedom of a safe seat. As a thinking man, motivated by reason and faith as well as ideology, Lugar’s approach to issues could rankle members of his own party. He led the effort to override Ronald Reagan’s veto of sanctions on apartheid South Africa. He advocated funding the Nicaraguan Contras in their struggle against the Sandinista government openly–that is, in contrast to Oliver North and John Poindexter. Lugar was known for his expertise and influence in foreign policy, but that influence was limited. By 1987, he had become Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was the senior Republican member. In an era when Congressional politics were becoming more polarized over domestic social issues–and Helms himself had the requisite experience as a conservative radio host–Lugar had trouble drawing attention to more obscure dangers. As the Cold War unwound, he was preoccupied with the problem of controlling nuclear weapons in an unstable world. Collaborating with Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), he created a threat reduction program in which US dollars paid for the destruction of thousands of nuclear warheads and the re-employment of Soviet weapons scientists.
He was a Republican, no doubt, but one with two earned degrees in economics. As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, his Farm Bill would have cut Federal subsidies to agriculture with the aim of freeing farmers to reorganize their business. In 2009, he proposed and secured bipartisan support for the Global Food Security Act (passed 2016), which mandates foreign aid to address both food shortages and environmental change, the first re-evaluation of such spending since the heyday of the Green Revolution. Unlike 198 Republicans in Congress, he opposed George W. Bush’s tax rebates (economic stimulus) in 2008. He also co-sponsored a version of Republican health reform in 1993 that would have imposed an individual mandate, a ban on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, and vouchers to help the poor afford insurance. Under Obama, however, Lugar opposed the ACA, presumably because it included other features and a huge pricetag. He might even have disagreed with John McCain’s fateful vote on repeal in 2017, but he wasn’t in the Senate to witness it, having been “primaried” out at the age of 84. His opponent, a former oil geologist and Indiana State Treasurer, won the hearts of Tea Party voters by attacking Lugar’s foresight on arms control and his reputation for bipartisan fair-dealing, precisely the traits for which he is being posthumously praised across the political spectrum. But Lugar never possessed the gift of simplifying or demeaning others’ motives. Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty with Russia, arguably a repudiation of Lugar’s whole legacy, brought typically understated reaction. Lugar called the policy “gravely misguided,” thereby running the risk of attributing it to deliberation and reflection. I think most Boomers now would join me in complaining that this kind of statesmanlike politeness has been all but replaced by instinctive self-aggrandizement.
Native Hoosier, outstanding student, Rhodes Scholar, naval veteran, professing Christian, small-town mayor–all these apply to another Presidential candidate a generation further down the road. His years at Oxford were spent in the same college as Lugar, Pembroke, where he earned a first-class degree while simultaneously curating a collection of international whiskys in the undergrad bar. Buttigieg is no less a political animal than Lugar. In fact, he became “Mayor Pete” at the even earlier age of 29. Like Unigov in Indy, some of his plans for South Bend have earned the distrust of the minority community–which he quickly acknowledged and addressed–and he seems capable of shrewd bipartisan calculation. His open smile is just as genuine as Lugar’s, and he looks out on a cultural landscape that has been transformed since his birth during the Reagan administration, which he identifies as the moment when the American economy took a wrong turn toward inequality. Will he make good use of his charm to fluster and disarm the crowd of Democrats, all of them contending to be the champion of the people? Or will his wonkiness open the way to the charge that he is not sufficiently populist, or worse, not sufficiently heterosexual? I confess that I hope for the former but fear the latter.