Tags: Presidential History | richard lugar | senator | obituary | white house | watergate

Why Dick Lugar Never Became President

richard lugar sits and smirks during a senate committee hearing
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in 1995 (Paul Buc/Getty Images)

Wednesday, 01 May 2019 07:26 AM Current | Bio | Archive

When the news came that former Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., died April 28 at age 87, my thoughts raced back 48 years to the first time we met — when the young Lugar was beginning to be on everybody's short list for a future Republican ticket.

I met Lugar in 1971. The place was the Hartford (Connecticut) Hilton Hotel, and the occasion was an event known as HART (Hartford's Action Republican Team) to raise money for the small Republican Party in the Nutmeg State's capital city.

Scott McAlister, chairman of HART and vice president of the Covenant Insurance Companies, had secured as a speaker his longtime friend Indianapolis (Indiana) Mayor Lugar — then 38, a U.S. Navy veteran and Rhodes Scholar, and coasting that year to re-election as mayor.

As Lugar spoke of the Republican message of opportunity and how it could appeal to minorities and the cities, talk spread throughout the ballroom that this was someone to keep an eye on because he just might become president someday.

He did not. When Richard Green Lugar died, he had served two terms as mayor (1967-75) and then went on to serve a record six terms (1976-2012) as Indiana's U.S. Senator.

As chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Foreign Relations Committees, he was a pivotal figure in issues ranging from crop subsidies reform (family farmer Lugar thought they were wasteful) to arms control treaties (an issue on which he and Barack Obama worked closely in the Senate and led to the New Start nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia during Obama's presidency).

But national politics and the national Republican Party passed the Hoosier centrist by.

"Conservative activists in Indiana never trusted him, especially [the late Indianapolis News editor and conservative icon] M. Stanton Evans and his allies," a senior conservative leader with longtime Hoosier ties told Newsmax. "And Lugar became more a creature of the Senate than a national leader with a following."

The latter point was clearly evinced when Lugar finally made his longshot bid for the Republican nomination in 1996. During a candidates' forum early in the nomination process, recalled opponent Pat Buchanan, "I gave a fire-and-brimstone speech on guns and about how the British marched out to Lexington and Concord to 'take away our guns.'

"When it was Dick's turn, he rhapsodized: 'Think about the possibilities — in Africa.'"

Buchanan's reminiscence was echoed by William Ruckelshaus, former Environmental Protection Administrator and a close friend of Lugar's from Indiana. Speaking at a Lugar roast, he quipped: "Dick has maintained that childhood capability of walking into an empty room and blending right in."

In finally getting out of the '96 race after a flaccid showing in the primaries, Lugar joked: "I think the momentum is suspect and the money is gone."

In 1972, Lugar drew the attention of national political reporters and the Nixon White House when he defeated New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay to become vice president of the National League of Cities. Lugar's championship of the Nixon administration's plans to move federal programs to states and cities resulted in the nickname (by a reporter) "Richard Nixon's favorite mayor."

Two years later, the Watergate scandal and fear of a disastrous election year convinced many promising Republicans to forego runs for major office. Not so Lugar, who chose to challenge two-term Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh.

"After Labor Day, polls showed we were actually tied with Bayh and we were feeling hopeful," Lugar told me during a lunch in 2015. "Then [President] Gerald Ford pardoned [ex-President] Nixon on Sept. 8 and we dropped 10 points behind."

While Lugar said he supported Ford on the Nixon pardon, he told me "I always wondered why he couldn't wait until after the election to do it." Lugar lost to Bayh by a margin of 53-47 percent. Two years later, he won Indiana's other Senate seat by defeating Democratic incumbent Vance Hartke.

Re-elected for several years with barely any opposition, Lugar found himself under fire in 2012 with a strong conservative primary challenger in State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Slamming the incumbent for not owning a house in Indiana for decades and for voting to confirm Obama's two Supreme Court nominees, Mourdock won with a whopping 61 percent of the vote. In November, he lost to Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-N.Y.

Lugar's distance from the Republican Party of today was recalled with admiration by former New York Times correspondent and author Stephen Kinzer.

"Lugar's death would be lamented at any time, but it's especially poignant now," Kinzer told us. "He represents the precise opposite of the political culture that now reigns in Washington. He was serious, knowledgeable, focused on results, aware of the complexity of the world, and eager to make it more just and peaceful. That makes this a sobering moment to reflect on what our political culture and our nation are losing every day.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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Former Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., died April 28 at age 87, and his legacy is remembered by Newsmax's John Gizzi.
richard lugar, senator, obituary, white house, watergate
Wednesday, 01 May 2019 07:26 AM
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