News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 10, 2012

MARK BENNETT: A lesson to be learned from Lugar’s loss

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — It can happen to one of the nation’s most revered, principled, effective, hard-working U.S. senators.

And, if it hasn’t already, it can happen to you.

In fact, there’s a lesson for all of us in the final chapter of Richard Lugar’s Senate career — our jobs are not permanent.

Just as voters did with Lugar in his Indiana primary loss to Republican challenger Richard Mourdock on Tuesday, someone someday could deliver the message, “Your services are no longer required.” The circumstances vary. The company could go out of business. Your dismissal could come in the form of a layoff, as a corporation (choose the appropriate euphemism) downsizes, streamlines, gets leaner, or maximizes its efficiencies. You might get fired for an egregious mistake, or simply forced to step aside in favor of a younger, less-expensive replacement. The bad news might come out of the blue, with nothing more than a “thanks for being a team player, but the firm has decided to go in a different direction.”

In every case, the bottom line is, they’re done with you.

All of those long hours. Showing up on time, day after day, even when sick. Sacrificing personal time to get the job done.

When left to ponder those lost ticks of the second-hand while staring at a new gold watch, many folks will be reminded of that classic George Carlin bit about a parent coping with an ungrateful youngster. After grumbling and rattling off a string of taken-for-granted tasks a mother had silently performed, the woman asks her kid in exasperation, “That’s the thanks I get?”

In a matter-of-fact voice, Carlin delivers her answer …

“That’s the thanks,” he says, pausing for dramatic effect, “you get.”

Lugar, likewise, would be justified in wondering what the heck happened to his support among those he serves. In 2006, Hoosiers elected him to a sixth term with 87 percent of the vote. Republicans, Democrats, independents, almost anyone short of the staunchest left-wingers appreciated the fact that Lugar’s reputation for wisdom allowed an often-overlooked state to have its voice heard regularly in Washington. Six years ago, when Lugar was chosen as one of America’s 10 best senators by Time magazine, former colleague Bob Kerrey praised the example Lugar set through independent thinking and conviction.

“He is a quiet, intelligent, steady force,” Kerrey said in that 2006 story. But, Kerrey added, “He’s unmovable when he reaches a conclusion about what ought to be done.”

The phrase “reaches a conclusion” implies the weighing of various options in a situation. That means Lugar considered different viewpoints, then made a firm decision and stuck by it. Unmovable. Ironically, he lost Tuesday’s primary for being too movable. Compromise is the problem, his opponent declared. Should we assume then that if Mourdock wins the fall election, Hoosiers with viewpoints outside his rigid ideology will not be considered when he casts Senate votes?

Lugar listened, then decided. That style earned him respect in Indiana, the nation and around the globe.

In 2012 politics, the process is reversed — decide, then pretend to listen and yet remain unmovable. Lugar’s approach is so 2006, like a cellphone without a Facebook app.

Yes, attributes that once made us valuable could become our liabilities someday.

To be sure, Lugar hastened his own ouster by campaigning at first rather cavalierly, as if it were 2006, and then in a desperate, uncharacteristically low-road fashion. It wasn’t until final few weeks that he recognized the likelihood that he could lose the job he’s fulfilled with a 98-percent attendance record over 36 years.

Ninety-eight percent.

Occasionally, you’ll hear someone boast, “Yeah, I haven’t missed a day’s work in 22 years. Even showed up the Monday after my appendectomy.” A couple years later, the same person might be told, “The company’s restructuring. This location is closing. It’s no reflection on you. Your work has been great. Best wishes.”

The co-author of the book “Work Won’t Love You Back” suggested in an interview with the medical-advice website that Americans should guard their personal and family time. “Stop checking email and cellphones so often,” said Stevan Hobfoll, a Kent State University psychology professor and co-writer of the book. “Few people are so important that they need their cellphones on at all times.” He also advised people to make their work hours productive but not more numerous.

Why? Jobs, businesses, even entire industries can end faster than we expect. As vital as it is, we’d better have more in our lives — faith, family, friends, volunteerism — than employment when that inevitable day comes.

For the 80-year-old Lugar, the blow arrives with an incredibly soft cushion, thanks to a solid Senate pension and all the prestige and perks that go with it. Unlike most octogenarians, Lugar’s vitality gives him other career options, such as a cabinet position (perhaps even on the cabinet of, gasp, President Obama should he win in November). As a lifelong runner, it would be heartening to see Lugar carve out extra time to participate in 5Ks in places he’d like to visit — turn off that cellphone, and guard that personal time he’s sacrificed.

Lugar also can ease the sting of his defeat with the realization that his quiet, methodical efforts made a difference — the deactivation of 6,828 “loose nukes” scattered around the former Soviet republics a decade before terrorists used jetliners to attack New York and Washington on 9/11, shepherding elements of unsexy-but-important farm legislation, and toiling relentlessly to expand the use of alternative fuels instead of war-saddled oil.

That said, the reality is that times change. That was then, and this is now. Thanks, Sen. Lugar, but the party has decided to move in a different direction. Nothing personal. Best wishes.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or