Mr. Longevity: Q&A with Richard Lugar

32 years and counting
Maureen Groppe
Indianapolis Star

Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who has earned accolades for his achievements during 32 years in the Senate, will reach another milestone when a new Congress convenes Tuesday.

Lugar, 76, will be the Senate's most senior Republican. One of the two Republicans who outranked Lugar in the previous Congress, New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, retired. The other, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, lost his re-election bid.

Recently named one of the 25 greatest public servants of the past 25 years by the Council for Excellence in Government, Lugar isn't slowing down. He traveled to Russia in December to help pave the way for a renegotiation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, one of his top three priorities for the new Congress, along with energy issues and improving how the world delivers emergency food.

Although Lugar will be in the minority in the Senate, he has good relationships with President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden and was named an honorary co-chairman of their inauguration.

Lugar spoke with Gannett News Service about how he's changed as a legislator over the years, why he doesn't speak on the Senate floor very often and the importance of making sure his job doesn't interfere with his wife's bowling night.

Question: When you were first elected in 1976, did you envision staying this long?

Answer: No. Nor would I have any reason to believe that I would ever be the most senior Republican. That is something that is obviously not competitive. It happens because of circumstances.

When I (joined the Senate), there were just 38 Republicans. . . . With these longevity things, you've got to get started at some point. And there weren't very many around at that point.

Q: To what do you attribute your longevity?

A: I'm grateful to the people of Indiana who've given me great encouragement and strength throughout the years. I've been excited by the work that I'm doing and the opportunities to achieve things for Indiana and for our country and sometimes, in the case of the arms-control battles, perhaps for world peace. Each day is a new adventure for me with usually some new people coming into my life, some extraordinary events I had not anticipated.

Q: Do you think you're a very different lawmaker than when you started?

A: I've learned how to work in the Senate to bring about as broad a consensus (as possible) on issues that I think are extremely important for our national security or for world security.

In the Foreign Relations Committee . . . I've striven to try to get something as close to a unanimous view as possible . . . because I felt that a united face of America to the world is extremely important. A vote of 8-7 on a critical issue that affects our national security sometimes is not going to be persuasive with the rest of the world or with most Americans.

I suppose I've developed more patience, tried to develop more diplomatic skills, maybe better persuasiveness in the choice of arguments or words.

Q: You've received many awards and honors over the years, including more than 30 honorary doctorates and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Is there one award that makes you the most proud?

A: No, there really isn't. . . . In my own mind's eye, I suspect that probably just my opportunity to serve in the Senate has been the most exciting thing in my life. So that's a very, very generous award all by itself.

Q: Of the 11,897 votes you've cast, are there any you wish you could take back?

A: I've never considered ones to do over. You do the very best that you can at the time the decision is made.

Q: Is there anything about being a senator that you still don't like all that much?

A: I'm certain that the basic problem is that there is just never enough time in the day. The job can be totally absorbing because there are always more people to be met and letters to be written and pages to be read.

I've been especially fortunate that my wife, Charlene, has shared my enthusiasm. It would not have been remotely possible if that had not been the case. Likewise, that we had four sons who, although none have become involved in politics, in elected office, have all been intensely interested in what we were doing. . . . I think the major problem that many members have is, if their families are not compatible with what they're doing, then ultimately their effectiveness is going to be inhibited or they really end up with very, very sad circumstances in terms of domestic problems as well as problems with their children, whom they love.

Q: Your wife's been supportive, but with the caveat that it not interfere with her bowling night.

A: Well, of course -- nor did it. But, of course, sometimes that worked out. If we were having roll call votes while Char was bowling, why, who was the wiser?

Q: Only two senators, one of whom was Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, spoke on the Senate floor fewer days than you did in the last Congress. Do you not find floor speeches effective?

A: I don't see them as particularly effective. Floor speeches can be important if you have a crusade or a cause that isn't really legislative. Our caucus encourages members who have particular causes or passions to come to the floor to fill out the morning business hour with a good, sound Republican speech or something of that variety. I think that for many members, they may feel that the floor gives them an opportunity to be heard and to be seen.

Q: You have good relationships with both Obama and Biden. What kind of role do you think you'll have in the new administration?

A: I would guess that they'd probably be interested in many of the views that I have. If so, they will probably call and ask me what I think. . . . (After the December trip to Russia) I made a short, written report to Barack Obama about the findings that I thought were most significant.

Q: Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is taking over as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Do you think you'll have as good a relationship with him as you did with Biden, and have the two of you talked about what you hope the committee will accomplish in the next Congress?

A: We've not done that specifically. But I would say that John Kerry has been very gracious. As soon as he knew he was going to be the chairman-designate, he called and said how much he hoped that we would have the same relationship. . . . He wants to have a dinner party at his home the first week in January with all the members of the committee in a bipartisan way so that people can engender a new spirit. I look forward to that. I think he's approaching it in a very constructive way.

Q: What are your priorities for the next Congress?

A: I'm looking toward the renewal of the START Treaty and all the aspects of arms control associated with that. We're at a point at which the world takes for granted the scoreboard that I've got in my office -- (the elimination of) so many missiles, so many warheads.

This could all come to a crashing halt because the START treaty -- which gives us the power of intrusive inspection in Russia and really the ability to stay on top of that in the same way they want to stay on top of what we're doing -- that comes to a conclusion in 2009.

It's critical that it be renewed, and it's not an easy task. It's a very complex document, which has the most basic security elements for both countries in it. I hope to be helpful in many ways in keeping the ball rolling there, making certain the job gets done.

Q: What do you think the Republican Party needs to do to retake Congress?

A: There is no substitute for identifying the very best people in the United States that could be senators and hopefully enlisting them for the Republican Party and to be our candidates. Nothing short of that is likely to reverse things very rapidly. We're going to have to have the very strongest horses to ride on.

Q: If the Republicans were in the majority, you would be president pro tempore and third in line to be president. Are there any benefits to being the most senior Republican while Democrats control the Senate?

A: There are none that I know of. . . . In our Tuesday caucus lunches, some (party leaders) have recognized the senior person. But it may have been because it was Ted Stevens or Strom Thurmond or somebody who felt that they deserved to have their say. I don't feel any desire to have to be recognized every week to pontificate on life and the times. At the same time, whatever role (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell thinks I could be helpful (in), I'd be happy to fill in.

Additional Facts

10 things you might not know about Sen. Richard Lugar
1. He's an Eagle Scout.
2. He graduated first in his class at Shortridge High School and Denison University in Ohio.
3. At Denison, he and future wife Charlene Smeltzer were student government co-presidents.
4. He was elected mayor of Indianapolis at age 35.
5. He's a Rhodes Scholar.
6. His middle name is Green (his mother's maiden name).
7. With family members, he owns a corn, soybean and tree farm in Marion County.
8. He ran for the GOP nomination for president in 1996, announcing his candidacy April 19, 1995, the day of the Oklahoma City bombing.
9. In 2006, even as the Democrats took control of the Senate, Lugar was re-elected with 87 percent of the vote.
10. Lugar has seniority bragging rights over another GOP senator first elected in 1976 -- Orrin Hatch of Utah -- because Senate seniority rules take factors such as the size of a state and previous elected offices into consideration.

Lugar's career by the numbers
11,897 Votes cast.
217 Votes missed.
13 Number of the 1,897 current or former senators who cast more votes than Lugar.
29 Number of those 1,897 who served more days than Lugar.