One year ago, Indiana’s longest-serving U.S. senator was rejected by Republican primary voters and forced into an unwelcome retirement from a distinguished political career that spanned 46 years.
But at 81, former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar is hardly in a resting mode.
In the months since his loss, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has traveled on a nuclear-powered warship to the South China Sea; founded The Lugar Center to continue his work on weapons nonproliferation and global food security; signed on with the German Marshall Fund to head an institute devoted to diplomacy; and joined the faculty of three universities.
He’s also been knighted by both the British and the Poles, using the accolades — like the multiple honors bestowed on him recently — to raise awareness and money for his new efforts.
After his many years of public service — including two terms as Indianapolis mayor and 36 years the Senate — why not retire?
“I’m still living in this world,” is how Lugar answered that question, during a break from a busy schedule of events in Indianapolis Tuesday. “And it’s still a dangerous world.”
Lugar, a Rhodes scholar and farmer, spent much of his Senate career trying to make the world a little less dangerous.
Before finishing his final term in early January, he was awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award, for “his extraordinary leadership and contributions to America’s national security.”
The award was in recognition of his work with former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, to craft the bill that created the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Better known as Nunn-Lugar, the program has eliminated more than 7,500 nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union and continues to secure and destroy weapons of mass destruction around the world.
The only sign of residue disappointment from his 2012 primary loss to tea party favorite Richard Mourdock — who subsequently lost to Democrat Joe Donnelly — appears when he talks about his age.
“Some people are surprised by what we’re doing,” Lugar said, of the multiple commitments he’s made to universities and institutions. “They think: ‘This is an 81-year-old man. What the devil is he doing?’ ”
It’s a question, he said, that echoes what he heard on the campaign trail last spring. “Some people, frankly, said: ‘We like you a lot. We’ve supported you again and again. But, you know, now you’re too old. Somebody who is 80 or 81 ought to know when it’s time to get out.”
Lugar didn’t agree, then or now. He’s in good health, still deeply interested in international affairs, and he still feels a strong sense of obligation to make the world a safer place.
After he lost the May primary, he reached out to a multitude of people, from Hoosiers serving in the military to world leaders with whom he’d forged alliances and friendships.
“All of these people who’d relied on me for a long time,” Lugar said. “I assured them that I would still be around, doing what I could to influence world opinion.”
His schedule last week is typical of the life he’s now leading.
On Monday, he spoke to an audience of lawyers that included Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts; on Tuesday, he visited the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in the morning to promote the museum’s 50th anniversary and was honored in the evening by the Indiana State Museum.
On Wednesday, it was back in Washington, D.C., to receive Germany’s highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, from the German president. On Thursday, he had a gala to attend and an award to accept from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The awards, he said, are humbling, but also provide him an opportunity to talk about his work and the causes he still cares about.
“I deeply believe in the things that I’ve been doing,” Lugar said. “I don’t have the opportunity to do them as a United States senator any more. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to keep working.”
Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.