Obituaries

Richard Lugar, six-term senator and leading voice on foreign policy, dies at 87

Mr. Lugar (left) introduced former secretary of state Henry Kissinger with then Senator John F. Kerry at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington.
Associated Press/File 2010
Mr. Lugar (left) introduced former secretary of state Henry Kissinger with then Senator John F. Kerry at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington.

NEW YORK — Richard G. Lugar, who represented Indiana in the Senate for 36 years and whose mastery of foreign affairs made him one of only a handful of senators in modern history to exercise substantial influence on the nation’s international relations, died Sunday in Annandale, Va. He was 87.

His death was announced by the Lugar Center, which said the cause was complications of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a nervous system disorder.

Mr. Lugar, who twice served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, influenced a wide range of foreign issues, but his most notable accomplishment was indisputably as the co-creator of a program to help destroy surplus stocks of nuclear weapons around the world.

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The project was emblematic of his approach to legislating: It represented an ability to take a long view about complex issues, ran counter to the inclinations of many of his fellow Republicans, and was built on a foundation of bipartisan cooperation. It was presented jointly with Senator Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and then chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

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The Nunn-Lugar program was based on the novel concept of providing US funds to destroy obsolete nuclear missiles and materials elsewhere in the world. At the time, the countries of the former Soviet Union said they could not afford the costs of the destruction and were not even providing sufficient resources to properly guard the weapons’ storage areas.

The idea was first proposed during the term of President George H.W. Bush, who opposed it. It took almost a decade, but Mr. Lugar succeeded in convincing Congress, and especially skeptical fellow Republicans, of the need for such a program.

‘‘Our nation has lost an extraordinary statesman who made the world a safer and better place,’’ Nunn said Sunday in a statement.

Mr. Lugar was also Congress’s leading voice on treaties to ban or limit nuclear weapons, and his judgment on any such proposals was often crucial to whether one could be enacted.

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In 1986, President Reagan chose him to lead an official delegation to monitor a pivotal election in the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s longtime rule, appeared to win the vote, turning back a tide of demonstrations in favor of democracy that had forced him to hold the election. The Reagan administration was on the verge of recognizing that result.

But Mr. Lugar insisted that widespread fraud had occurred and that Corazon Aquino, the widow of an assassinated opposition politician, should have been declared the winner. He personally exhorted the president about the election irregularities he had witnessed and persuaded him to block any immediate recognition of a Marcos victory. Aquino was eventually declared the victor.

His independence frequently annoyed many Republicans, both in Washington and Indiana, especially later in 1986, when he helped lead a successful effort in Congress to override Reagan’s veto of legislation imposing trade and economic sanctions on the white-led government of South Africa over its policies of apartheid.

Mr. Lugar has been frequently compared by historians and congressional scholars to former Senators Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, and Henry Jackson of Washington, all of whom had exercised outsize influence in foreign affairs.

But unlike them — and, indeed, unlike most senators — Mr. Lugar was known for his modesty. The occasion of roll-call votes typically presents the spectacle of senators lingering on the floor to socialize. In contrast, Mr. Lugar would cast his vote quickly after entering and, waving to a senator or two, just as quickly depart.

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He was among the most scholarly and courtly of lawmakers, but those characteristics perhaps contributed to his reputation as an unremarkable orator. In “Richard G. Lugar: Statesman of the Senate” (2012), an otherwise highly admiring biography, John T. Shaw, a journalist, wrote that while Mr. Lugar had never been uncomfortable in addressing groups, he was nevertheless “a wooden speaker who is not always adept at gauging his audience and ascertaining the level of detail they are able or willing to absorb.”

An exception may have been in 2008, when he accepted an award for ethics in government. He spoke then with passion about his belief in the need for compromise and bipartisanship. At a time when the Senate was becoming increasingly polarized along party and ideological lines, he argued that senators had a duty to seek consensus across such boundaries.

Bipartisanship, he said, was not simply moderation or willingness to reach compromises but the only sensible way to govern over the long term. The problem with heavy reliance on opposing the other party, he said, was “whatever is won today through division is usually lost tomorrow.”

“The relationships that are destroyed and the ill will that is created make subsequent achievements that much more difficult,’’ he said. Polarization, he added, “deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times.’’

He said lawmakers were obliged to avoid unnecessary inflammatory rhetoric and accept that those of the other party also love their country.

“There’s a reason Dick was the only senator Indiana ever elected to a fourth, fifth, and sixth term,’’ John F. Kerry, his former colleague on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement to The Boston Globe. “He followed the facts and found a way to work not just on his side, but side by side with people who cared about results not headlines. He was decent, serious, and fair-minded.’’

Richard Green Lugar was born in Indianapolis on April 4, 1932, to a farming family with generations of history in Indiana.

He got along so well with his Denison University class’s co-president, Charlene Smeltzer, who was known as Char, that they married after graduating. She survives him.

He became a Rhodes Scholar, and during his studies at Oxford, he visited the American embassy in London in 1957 to enlist in the Navy.

After his return to the United States, Lugar was commissioned a second lieutenant and eventually became a briefer for Admiral Arleigh Burke, the chief of naval operations, who had been a hero of World War II and was renowned as a guileful player in Washington politics. Friends said that this was Mr. Lugar’s most significant exposure to geopolitical thinking on a global scale, and probably the single greatest source of his fascination with foreign policy.

After a few years back in Indiana running a machine business, he was elected to the Indianapolis school board, and in 1967, at age 35, he was elected mayor of Indianapolis. In his two terms, he helped conceive of and push through a plan to unify Indianapolis with surrounding Marion County in all forms of government except for the schools.

With his eyes on the Senate, Mr. Lugar sought to unseat a Democratic incumbent, Birch Bayh, in 1974. He lost, but two years later he succeeded in ousting Indiana’s other Democratic incumbent, Vance Hartke.

Mr. Lugar ran for president in 1996, vowing to test whether voters valued ‘‘serious talk about issues’’ over ‘‘cheap shots and sound bites.’’ The answer was not encouraging. Neither his sober — some said wooden — campaign appearances nor his proposal for a national sales tax attracted much interest. He seemed ‘‘like a fox-trot man caught in a rock ‘n’ roll culture,’’ New York Times reporter R.W. Apple Jr. observed at the time.

After being reelected five times to the Senate, Mr. Lugar became a target for the unforgiving conservatives of his party’s Tea Party wing and was defeated in the Republican primary by Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer. It was apparent that many Republican primary voters had lost patience with Mr. Lugar’s moderate stances on some issues and especially his outspoken faith in the need for cooperation with Democrats.

Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called the defeat ‘‘a tragedy for the Senate. . . . His expertise on complicated issues honed over 36 years simply can’t be replicated.’’

After his defeat, Mr. Lugar sat down with family and longtime aides to figure out what to do with the remainder of his life. Out of those discussions came the idea for the Lugar Center, a Washington think tank. In the ensuing years, the Lugar Center sponsored studies of the issues he had dealt with for so long as a senator: world hunger, education, and nuclear proliferation.

Material from the Washington Post was used in this obituary.