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Published: Thursday, 5/10/2012

COMMENTARY

Lugar's defeat is a loss for civility

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
EXECUTIVE EDITOR OF THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

In the end, he was found wanting by Indiana voters. Not partisan enough. Not conservative enough. Not humble enough. Not local enough.

Ultimately, Richard Lugar, elected to the Senate during America's bicentennial celebration -- a very long time ago -- was not modern enough. He lost this week's Republican primary in his state to a Tea Party challenger.

Mr. Lugar just turned 80. He long ago abandoned his Indiana home, if not his Indiana roots. He was that rare lawmaker who lived in a rarefied world, representing not only his state, not only his country, but also the public interest.

In our politics, there is a fine line between representing broader interests and sowing resentment. Mr. Lugar did the first for a long while, then the second overtook him.

This is not to say Republicans with a moderate impulse are somehow more patriotic, more selfless, or more valuable than Republicans of a more caffeinated conservatism. This is merely to say that, when it came to international affairs, especially nuclear proliferation, Mr. Lugar thought himself a citizen of the world -- not in a haughty way, but in a high-minded way.

Mr. Lugar worked to become elite in the days when the word, not always a synonym for snobby, was an object of reverence rather than opprobrium. It was a time when earned expertise was respected.

It wasn't, however, a time of purity. Mr. Lugar was elected in a decade despoiled by Vietnam and Watergate, when men of elite backgrounds were derided for being the best and the brightest (and earned that derision), and when most of the experts, particularly in foreign affairs, were wrong.

In that time and in decades to follow -- he is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate -- Mr. Lugar wasn't so much the senior senator from Indiana as the senior spokesman for stability.

Mr. Lugar moved from Indianapolis to Washington in 1977 with a heavy burden. He had defeated Sen. Vance Hartke at a time when conservative-oriented Indiana incongruously had two liberal Democratic senators. But he carried an inevitable and unenviable sobriquet in the angry aftertaste of Watergate.

Mr. Lugar defied expectations. He wasn't so much bipartisan as above partisanship. He had a sunny disposition -- no man in either caucus had a smile so permanent -- but he knew deep disappointment. The world didn't behave with Midwestern rationality.

George H.W. Bush inexplicably chose Senator Lugar's junior colleague, Dan Quayle, much underestimated but not as estimable as Mr. Lugar, for vice president in 1988.

Mr. Lugar's presidential race was regarded as one of those worthy exercises, like Bruce Babbitt's, that might have prevailed in a more sober era, but not in our own. He finished seventh in Iowa in 1996.

Mr. Lugar's rejection this week in a state that voted for Barack Obama for president four years ago is a variation of an oft-told tale. Some lawmakers go to Washington and adopt its warm colorations, thriving in the policy debates, coming to believe that the whole country is as riveted as they are by the votes of an obscure subcommittee. They commit the crime of going native in the capital.

Mr. Lugar will leave the Senate in January with garlands of praise from both sides of the aisle. The man, after all, lived in the aisle, then paid for it.

He will be regarded as a symbol of old virtues. Lawmakers with highly paid speechwriters almost certainly will find themselves uttering the old Hamlet chestnut that they will not see his like again.

Maybe in a brighter time, they will. Maybe Richard Mourdock, now Indiana's Republican nominee for Senate, will emerge as a lawmaker of stature and soundness. It can happen.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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