The selection of Richard Lugar to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom arrives at a telling moment.
Lugar joins 15 other Americans chosen by President Obama for the nation’s highest civilian honor given annually to exceptional citizens. This year’s list includes Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks, late Hawaii senator and World War II Medal of Honor recipient Daniel Inouye, former President Bill Clinton, country music great Loretta Lynn, late astronaut Sally Ride, former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, and television host Oprah Winfrey, among others. “This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world,” the president said.
Lugar has done just that, most notably during his 36 years in the U.S. Senate representing Hoosiers. His contributions exceed that timespan, as well. Before entering Congress, he served on the Indianapolis Public Schools board and as the Indy mayor. Since leaving the Senate in January, he’s established The Lugar Center, a nonprofit facility aimed at finding solutions to issues championed by the senator. Those topics include reducing the nuclear weapons threat, worldwide hunger, energy independence, and “enhancing bipartisan governance.”
Lugar deserves a medal for the latter goal alone.
The 113th Congress is on course to become the least productive in history. Its term began Jan. 3, just as Lugar finished cleaning out his Senate desk. He was asked to leave, by a faction of Indiana voters, losing the 2012 Republican primary to tea party challenger Richard Mourdock, who then lost to Joe Donnelly, a centrist Democrat, in the general election last November. In reality, Lugar would not fit well in the 113th Congress. A longtime conservative, Lugar was ousted by the extreme right of his party for not clinging to a rigid ideology. He voted thoughtfully.
A significant slice of Congress members find bipartisanship repugnant.
Not coincidentally, a significant slice of Americans find the current Congress repugnant. A mere 15 percent of Americans have approved of Congress’ performance this year, tying the all-time low set in 2012, according to Gallup ratings. The prime reasons cited for the public’s dissatisfaction are partisan gridlock and a failure to get things done. Its inability, so far, to find a fair consensus on immigration reform — widely supported by Americans — stands as a glaring example.
Lugar speaks with wisdom and clarity, but isn’t known for uttering charismatic quotations. Still, as Lugar prepares to accept the Medal of Freedom at a ceremony later this year, his former colleagues in Congress and that governing body’s newcomers should consider an otherwise nondescript comment he made while reflecting on his days as an Indiana school board member.
“That first responsibility as a school board member — meals for latch-key children — was absolutely critical in my understanding of the extraordinary problems of poverty,” Lugar said.
He allowed his mind to be opened and then reshaped by an experience. He was enlightened. Too many members of Congress listen only to themselves and their ideological supporters, and vote to satisfy only those voices.
It is appropriate the honor Lugar will receive is called the Medal of Freedom. He served his state and country with a free mind.