Richard Lugar, the former Indiana senator whose work in pursuit of nuclear nonproliferation helped cement his place as one of the Republican Party’s most influential voices on foreign policy, died Sunday at the age of 87.
The former six-term senator died in Falls Church, Va., of complications from a neurological disorder known as chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. Lugar’s wife, Charlene, and his four sons — Mark, Bob, John and David — were with him at the time of his death, following a short illness in the hospital, according to a statement from the Lugar Center.
Lugar’s political career began in 1964 when he was elected to the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners. As the school board’s vice president, he worked to desegregate the city’s schools, according to The Indianapolis Star.
He went on to serve two terms as Indianapolis’ mayor before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1976.
During his time in the Senate, Lugar twice served as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and eventually became the longest-serving senator in Indiana history.
It was in the Senate where Lugar would turn his focus to the issue of nuclear non-proliferation. The work was fueled by his concerns that even as the Cold War was ending, the weapons of mass destruction created as a result of the conflict would continue to pose a threat.
Working with former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., Lugar created the Soviet Threat Reduction Act in 1991, “to address the large nuclear arsenals inherited by former Soviet states Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan after the Soviet Union’s collapse,” according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
The bill created the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program within the Department of Defense. The program, also known as Nunn-Lugar, has led to the deactivation of more than 7,600 nuclear warheads, according to the Lugar Center.
“Our nation has lost an extraordinary statesman who made the world a safer and better place. I have lost a wonderful friend and trusted partner,” Nunn said in a statement on Sunday. “Dick Lugar treated every person with dignity and respect. This generation and future generations can learn much from his example in the political world and in life.”
While his non-proliferation legislation may be the most lasting of his career, Lugar was also an outspoken critic of South Africa’s apartheid system. As The Washington Post reports, Lugar led an effort in the Senate to overturn President Reagan’s veto of economic sanctions against South Africa.
“He was a very successful politician, but the rare one who managed to come to work every day not thinking about politics,” said Dan Diller, director of policy at the Lugar Center, in an interview with NPR. “He really believed that the United States could be governed by civility and compassion and he worked very hard to build consensus every day.”
Diller, who was Lugar’s legislative director for 10 years, said the former senator “thought that policies would be more effective and last longer if they weren’t enacted with 51% of the vote and he worked very hard over a long period of time to construct policies, many times in very difficult circumstances, to achieve those types of consensuses.”
Not all of Lugar’s work ended successfully. As previously reported by NPR, Lugar’s hesitancy to clearly and forcefully communicate his reservations about the Iraq War to President George W. Bush was considered a low point by many of the senator’s colleagues.
Long known as a moderate conservative, Lugar became an early victim of the Republican Party’s turn to the right in the years following the election of Barack Obama. In 2012, Lugar lost his primary to Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock, who at the time was Indiana’s state treasurer. His loss foreshadowed a wave of defeats for moderates that year, as Tea Party members began to win seats in Congress.
His defeat was seen as a loss for the entire Senate.
“There is nobody, not one senator in the Republican Party today, who is in Dick Lugar’s universe,” former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, said at the time.
Hagel served 12 years in the Senate with Lugar, including a time when both were on the Foreign Relations Committee. In 2012, Hagel said that “[Lugar is] the kind of public servant and elected official the country expects and deserves. He’s not driven by ideology, but makes decisions based on what’s best for the country.”
Following Lugar’s defeat in 2012, Obama would go on to award him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
As Obama gave Lugar the award he said Lugar’s legacy, “is the thousands of missiles and bombers and submarines and warheads that no longer threaten us.”
“We held different political beliefs, but traveling overseas together, he took me under his wing as we toured munitions storage facilities and talked over meals of borscht. Dick always stuck to the facts. He understood the intricacies of America’s power and the way words uttered in Washington echo around the globe,” Obama said in a statement on Sunday. “But perhaps most importantly, he exhibited the truth that common courtesy can speak across cultures.”
“In Dick, I saw someone who wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat first, but a problem-solver–an example of the impact of a public servant can make by eschewing partisan divisiveness to instead focus on common ground.”
After leaving the Senate, Lugar went on to create The Lugar Center, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. that focuses on global issues that Lugar backed throughout his career including food security, the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and bipartisanship.
Though his Senate career was over, many, including President Trump and Vice President Pence, still looked to Lugar for guidance when it came to issues such as threats from North Korea.
On Sunday, Vice President Pence, a fellow Hoosier, put out a statement saying, “Senator Lugar’s contributions to the life of our nation are countless … he leaves behind a legacy of public service that will inspire Hoosiers for generations.”
In order to articulate his vision, Diller said, Lugar always believed in one thing: the people.
“He really thought that people who came to work in public service and voters really were well-motivated and had good hearts and there’s always a deep reservoir of patriotic feeling and compassion in the United States,” Diller said. “Sometimes in the day-to-day back and forth of politics we lose sight of that, but he really believed that the American people had unlimited capacity to do good in the world and make this a great place and he never lost that confidence.”