Tuesday night evoked memories of the last day the legendary A.J. Foyt stepped out of a race car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a moment that evinced the words “There comes a time …” from the first four-time winner of the greatest spectacle in racing.
There comes a time to retire, or just walk away from your passion, Foyt started to say. He never made it to the end of his sentence.
Emotion overcame the man they called “Super Tex” and anyone who knew him or knew about him and how much he loved doing what he loved most.
For Richard Green Lugar, the moment came Tuesday night in a concession speech that many who have known or covered Lugar thought would never happen.
If most Hoosiers were asked to name the most famous Republican from their state, or the best model of political integrity in their state, or the all-time most popular politician from their state, chances are a majority might answer with the words “Dick Lugar.”
Based on longevity alone, his career in the U.S. Senate makes a case for that answer. He was the first four-term U.S. senator from a state and went on to serve two more terms.
Had some other state elected Lugar to six terms, he might be serving in the U.S. Senate again. But that’s just one of many unanswered questions in the epilogue of the Lugar legacy. Even another former Hoosier, Abraham Lincoln, lost from time to time, as Lugar did in 1974 when Birch Bayh defeated him.
Had Lugar been in Alaska and faced the same situation he faced Tuesday – a GOP primary loss – he could do what Sen. Lisa Murkowski did, or as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut did after he lost a Democratic primary bid for another term. He could run as a third-party candidate in the general election this fall.
But that’s not Dick Lugar’s style. Like the outcome or not, Lugar will give the candidate who defeated him his best wishes and public party support – and move on, if not move back to Indianapolis.
What at first seemed unlikely, then stunning and then a foregone conclusion – his defeat to State Treasurer Richard Mourdock – was a byproduct of several factors.
Those who are not familiar with Lugar or the race might be asking, “Was the election really about Lugar, or was it about Mourdock?”
The answer to the question is that it was probably more about Lugar than Mourdock. The pretext of the end to Lugar’s political career is the question all politicians should ask themselves privately: What’s my exit strategy?
Though we may never know, it’s likely Lugar’s exit strategy was to serve out his life, even most of his 80s, at the highest level of government. He may have had no exit strategy other than to do the thing he loved most. Another possibility is that he had no exit strategy because unlike other states, there was no clear-cut member of Indiana congressional delegation from the Republican side who was poised and prepared to take his place. Names such as Marlin Stutzman, Todd Rokita and Larry Buschon were too new to the fray. Mike Pence wanted to run for governor. Dan Burton wanted to run for cover after winning only a plurality in a GOP primary two years ago. Gov. Mitch Daniels had bigger fish to fry in that he would run for president if he ran for any office again. There was no groomed heir apparent to Lugar, and so he kept on being the Energizer bunny of the party, the standard bearer for all things shirt-and-tie, well-groomed and well-funded about the Indiana Republican Party.
Perhaps where Lugar went wrong is in not gauging the same information pollster Fred Yang found on the U.S. Senate race. If there was anything that could have been read from the polling tea leaves Yang brewed, it was this: There had come a time for Lugar to find an exit strategy. He could have simply retired. Had he thought there was a single person capable of filling his shoes, he might have. But there was no clear indication there was.
That’s not to say there weren’t other factors working against Lugar, not the least of which was his age. At 80, he had reached the threshold of becoming Indiana’s version of Strom Thurmond, and Indiana voters traditionally fickle after three terms sensed it was inevitable that Indiana would have a new senator soon. Six years is a long time to predict how effective a public servant will be after they’re elected, particularly when they’re 80.
Among the other factors working against Lugar some cited are his Virginia residency and the use of an address where he no longer lives as his official Indianapolis residence. But while Lugar was virtually living in Virginia, farmers in Indiana were moving off the farm. They were an essential component to Lugar’s success in times when trade agreements limited farm exports and farmers were left to fend for themselves against a myriad of subsidies including the Payment-In-Kind and wetlands legislation. His background in agriculture made him a natural hero for every Republican farmer in the state. In an era when less than 2 percent of Americans live on farms, one of Lugar’s key constituencies was virtually eliminated by progress.
The other factor Lugar may not have realized is the point his career actually crested.
Some might say it came in the 1980s when he was a member of the U.S. Senate majority and chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. But it wasn’t long after that when Republicans passed over him for Dan Quayle to become the party’s vice presidential nominee and ultimately the second most powerful elected official in the country. That might have been a George H.W. Bush mistake more than a Lugar shortcoming, but that’s a discussion for another time. Lugar might have been the Chuck Yeager of the Republican Party: He might have had the right stuff, but he didn’t have the right timing or the right people in his corner.
When Lugar finally ran for president and proposed streamlining of the IRS that was later mirrored by Steve Forbes, the GOP field was too crowded and the message did not resonate. Lugar’s book “Letters to the Next President” was thought provoking, but his message on the importance of foreign relations before 9/11 was akin to a warning from a U.S. Army official who warned that we could some day be attacked by the Japanese without an effective air force on our western front. Nobody listened when they should have. That officer was court-martialed. Lugar was simply ignored until it was too late.
Lugar’s ease in winning term after term and even the Democrats’ decision not to field against him six years ago may have contributed to campaign atrophy. When it mattered most this year, Lugar could still raise more money than his opponent, but his campaign was not up to the muster of previous years when he carried officeholders from Valparaiso to Vevay and Vincennes to Versailles into office after him.
What was Lugar’s relevance in this campaign? It was foreign policy and moderation. These were two things conservative primary Republican voters identified with in Indiana as much as Eskimoes care about coconut and sugar cane subsidies. Lugar was no longer in the majority. He wasn’t going to be on a presidential ticket. He was going to ride out his career in the Senate, and that’s when covetous opponents since Caesar and Brutus begin to breathe the fire of vulnerability.
Ronald Reagan, who once referred to America as the shining city on the hill, might have referred to Indianapolis as the shining city that Lugar fashioned through his embrace of Unigov. It was that Lugar vision that made it one of the top cities in the nation, if not the world.
It was a city built by a man who played in the Shortridge High School Orchestra at 34th and Meridian, the street that cuts through the center of the state.
Tuesday’s loss had to cut through the soul of Dick Lugar. For years, he has been as sought after a Sunday morning television guest as often any secretary of state or ambassador. For one night, he was dismissed as any other politician voters had come to believe had served their usefulness to them.
Had he received a call from Foyt after President Obama lauded him Tuesday night, Lugar might have been told by an old race driver that he deserved Victory Lane. What he got was Gasoline Alley.
• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at email@example.com.