When Democratic Sen. Barack Obama launched his presidential bid in Springfield, Ill., he stood where Abraham Lincoln once delivered his historic "House Divided" speech. Obama mentioned just one other politician by name: Republican Richard Lugar.
Obama’s campaign-trailer reference to Lugar didn’t stop there. He repeatedly has described Indiana’s senior senator as a mentor on foreign policy issues. In the third presidential debate, Obama even implied he’s eyeing Lugar for a place in his administration.
"If I’m interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden, or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or Gen. Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO," Obama said Oct. 15 at Hofstra University.
"These are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House."
In recent weeks, national pundits have made much of Obama’s reliance on former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker as he attempts to address the global financial crisis. Obama’s similar reverence for Lugar raises questions whether he might, if elected, tap the elder Hoosier for a key post, such as secretary of state.
Lugar didn’t respond to IBJ’s request for an interview. He has said publicly that he wouldn’t want a spot in Obama’s cabinet, and he has formally endorsed Republican John McCain.
Still, Lugar has praised both men, and curiosity about his relationship with Obama persists—in part because the Obama campaign hasn’t stopped referencing Lugar in the homestretch.
In Obama’s 30-minute infomercial broadcast nationally Oct. 29, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden said Obama and Lugar have worked together "to keep loose nukes out of the hands of terrorists."
Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said the senator is not a foreign policy adviser to Obama’s campaign. He also noted that Lugar has served 30 years with Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Obama likely is gaining votes merely by highlighting his bipartisan friendship with Lugar, who calls himself an "independent spirit." The association helps Obama burnish his credentials as a moderate centrist. And it simultaneously bolsters him against one his opponent’s foremost criticisms. McCain regularly questions Obama’s experience and judgment on world affairs. But Lugar, an international relations giant, has repeatedly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to reduce nuclear arms proliferation.
Though Lugar has contributed $2,000 to McCain’s war chest, he hasn’t campaigned aggressively on his behalf, despite Indiana’s unusual swing-state status this year. What’s more, he hasn’t reined in Obama’s rhetoric. Instead, he offers measured compliments whenever asked about their association.
Friends and former colleagues say, at minimum, Lugar finds Obama’s admiration flattering. They note Lugar was a Rhodes Scholar, and always has responded to nuanced intellectuals who are willing to seriously negotiate solutions for his top concerns, such as energy independence and control of weapons of mass destruction.
Whether from the inside or out, Lugar would have a prominent role in an Obama administration, said Indiana Pacers President Jim Morris. Morris served as Lugar’s chief of staff four decades ago, when Lugar was mayor of Indianapolis. They’ve been friends since. And when Morris was executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme from 2002 to 2007, he got to work regularly with Lugar again.
"Dick Lugar has a better ability to connect the dots than any human being I’ve ever known," Morris said. "I think he loves being a U.S. senator. It would take an awful lot. I couldn’t imagine he’d leave his Senate seat. But he will be there to help any president, any secretary of state.
"There’s not many like him."
Lion in winter
Lugar has long enjoyed one of the best reputations in politics, in Indiana and beyond. He was the mayor that engineered the consolidation of Indianapolis and Marion County under Unigov. Now a lion in the Senate, he’s been years ahead of Washington colleagues on signature issues like the need to develop biofuels, or the rising threat of radical Islamic terrorism.
Hoosiers approve of Lugar’s job performance so much that, in 2006, he faced no Democratic opposition when he ran for a sixth term and earned a whopping 87.4 percent of the vote.
"In 1996, when he ran for president, he was talking about the threat of nuclear terrorism at the time, and everyone said, ‘Who wants to talk about this? It’s a bummer. Why are we dealing with such a heavy issue?’ But he was prophetic," said Pierre Atlas, director of Marian College’s Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies.
"He’s been ahead of his time in a lot of ways, and the world has come around. The issues he signaled out are now on the front page every day."
Although he’s now 76, Lugar appears vibrant in the winter of his career. Former employees say his energy levels are as high as ever. At this stage, he enjoys the opportunity to hold his Senate seat indefinitely—unless he wants to cap his legacy with a different challenge.
Before joining Republican Mayor Greg Ballard’s administration as a deputy mayor, Nick Weber worked for Lugar from 2001 to 2007 as a special assistant and press secretary. He also was Lugar’s 2006 campaign manager. Weber remembers Lugar always was willing to share his experience with talented young people.
Interns in other congressional offices often met senators just once, Weber said, for a photo. But Lugar encouraged them to join weekly roundtable discussions over brown-bag dinners. He considered it important to give meaningful experience to people he believed will become the leaders of tomorrow.
"Whoever wins the presidential election, the senator is going to have a good relationship. That’s really the hallmark of his service," Weber said. "The bedrock of his bipartisan initiatives is, nothing happens by itself, or with a sole person in Washington. His drive is to work with people, find allies, convince and persuade. It’s all about service."
In 2005, when Obama was a Senate freshman, Lugar was chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. He invited Obama to join the committee because Obama had made elimination of weapons of mass destruction a major plank in his Senate campaign platform. Lugar spokesman Fisher said that’s why the pair subsequently traveled overseas together to Russia, Azerbaijan and the Ukraine on a fact-finding mission.
"Clearly, Lugar respects Obama as a person and a thinker," Atlas said. "I think he just saw a smart, young guy coming in, and took him under his wing a little bit."
Lugar described the trip during an Oct. 8 appearance at the University of Notre Dame, noting they were unexpectedly detained by the Russians. It was a rough initiation for Obama to the region’s political, energy and weapons-security issues.
"He has been a very good member of the foreign relations committee," Lugar told the audience. "And we’ve introduced legislation together that dealt with arms control."
In January 2007, President George W. Bush signed the Lugar-Obama proliferation and threat reduction initiative into law. It was an extension of Lugar’s previous work with Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., to secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. The Lugar-Obama program focuses on terrorists, and their use of multiple types of weapons.
Fisher said Lugar and Obama also have worked together on energy issues, crafting legislation to increase standards for automobile fuel efficiency, bolster use of renewable fuels, and develop coal-to-liquid fuels.
Lugar has not written legislation directly with McCain. But he’s equally complimentary of the self-described "maverick." Lugar recalled their two-decade relationship during his Notre Dame appearance.
"I found him to be an independent spirit, a courageous person, a person who is outspoken," Lugar said. "He is described frequently in these terms, but I have had the privilege of seeing it firsthand. And we have found that we are kindred spirits in terms of that independent outlook."
At an Oct. 15 appearance at the National Defense University, Lugar praised both candidates.
"Clearly, there is truth in the positions of both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama," Lugar told the audience. "As Sen. McCain suggests, there are times when diplomatic approaches to rogue regimes have little efficacy. No president should undertake discussions for the sake of appearances, and the president should be mindful of the legitimacy such talks might confer on particular leaders."
"But as Sen. Obama has argued, isolating regimes, though sometimes necessary, rarely leads to a resolution of contentious issues," Lugar continued. "He correctly cautions against the implication that hostile nations must be dealt with almost exclusively through isolation or military force. In some cases, refusing to talk can even be dangerous."
Only Obama knows for certain whether he’s hoping to attract Lugar across the aisle. But repeatedly mentioning Lugar’s name already has helped lure some traditional GOP voters, said John Martin, founder of the New York-based Republicans For Obama.
"It gives regular Republicans hope that Barack can pull this off. This is central to the reason why we support Obama—that he reaches out to Republicans like Lugar" as well as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Martin said. "We know he will be a uniter."
But Bert Rockman, head of Purdue University’s Department of Political Science, said it’s a long shot that Lugar would accept a globe-trotting position like secretary of state, given his age, especially since doing so would mean giving up his enormous influence in the Senate.
In addition, Lugar, a loyal Republican, would be cognizant of the implications for the political map. Indiana’s governor would appoint his successor. Gov. Mitch Daniels’ fate won’t be certain before Obama’s. Lugar surely is concerned that a "safe" seat remain in Republican hands, Rockman said. And he’d likely desire a role in selecting his successor.
Still, Lugar’s friendly relationship with Obama appears genuine, Rockman added. If the Democrat prevails, Lugar probably will be a frequent White House visitor.
"My guess is he’ll remain in the Senate," Rockman said. "But when the administration needs serious folks around the table for the photo op, he’ll be there."