Elder statesman status seems to agree with Richard Lugar.
As he shows me around the cluttered offices of the Lugar Center here in the nation’s capital, the former six-term Republican U.S. senator from Indiana steps slower than the rat-a-tat-tat quick-step he walked with during his first years in politics.
His mind, though, is still quick and agile. As he points to some memento of an important event, Lugar provides tight thumbnail descriptions of the players involved and cogent analysis of the moment’s significance.
The Lugar Center is in the middle of a move to new digs. Some offices in this soon-to-be-vacated space are empty. Others have books, papers, plaques and awards stacked upon them.
That includes the table that we come to sit beside — the famous Nunn-Lugar table at which Lugar and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Georgia, hatched plans to have the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons.
The table is covered with papers and trophies. It’s perhaps the only historical artifact in the world that doubles as temporary storage space.
Lugar walks me through how he and Nunn persuaded the Russians to disarm. The story is like other ones in which Lugar helped solve a problem. It involves a lot of moving back and forth between the Russians, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, a lot of stroking of presidents, a lot of studying, a lot of hard work.
I ask Lugar how, again and again, he could fashion solutions when others couldn’t find them.
His answer is self-deprecatory — and deflective. He talks about the good work of many people.
Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, has a better response.
When I ask Daschle what made Lugar so effective, even with people who disagreed with him on ideological grounds, Daschle says people trust Lugar and his word. Trust, Daschle says, is the currency of the U.S. Senate. Without it, the place cannot function.
But Lugar’s effectiveness, Daschle continues, also sprang from another part of his nature.
“Dick always led by listening first,” Daschle says. Lugar found possible areas of agreement because he asked and paid attention to the answer.
I ask Daschle if Lugar paid a political price for his willingness to consider others’ views. After all, Lugar was defeated in a 2012 Republican primary by a challenger championed by special interests who chided him for not being conservative enough, even though Lugar’s voting record was only slightly to the left of conservative firebreather Strom Thurmond’s.
Daschle’s mouth twists into something between a grimace and a tight-lipped smile. He says members of the Senate now use the Hoosier’s name “as a verb.”
If they think about working with a member of the other party to get something done, they back away from the idea “because they’re afraid they’ll be Lugared,” Daschle says.
Lugar talks of his defeat — and the seeming repudiation by the Hoosier voters he’d served for so long of his “come, let us reason together” approach to governing — in muted terms. He would have liked to return to the Senate, he says, because he still had things to do there, but he couldn’t. So, he finds other ways to contribute. Life goes on, he almost shrugs.
His wife of 60 years, Charlene, is more forthcoming. She says the loss hurt, even though it was somewhat expected from the beginning of the campaign.
She says the moment she was both “the saddest for” and “the proudest of my husband” came the morning after he had lost, when he went back to work in the Senate as if nothing had happened.
After he left the Senate, Lugar formed the Lugar Center, which works to improve global food security, foster disarmament, measure the effectiveness of foreign aid and encourage bipartisan approaches to governing.
It’s important work, Lugar says, and it keeps him busy.
The Lugar Center soon will move from this Rhode Island Avenue address to new space at the historic Willard Hotel, a gathering place for power brokers for nearly two centuries. It’s also halfway between the glitz and self-indulgence of the Trump International Hotel and the stately call to duty that is the White House.
That’s Dick Lugar, still trying, always trying, to find that elusive common ground.