Sam Nunn, a Democrat, represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate from 1972 to 1996.
Our nation was fortunate to have Richard Lugar, who died Sunday at 87, as a public servant. I was fortunate that he was my trusted friend.
Dick began his Senate career representing Indiana in 1977 at a time when our politics and our nation could have come apart. Over the previous four years, we’d had three presidents and four vice presidents, a presidential resignation, the installation of two vice presidents via the never-before-used 25th Amendment, and a close 1976 presidential election. Despite this turmoil, Dick set a new example of civility, working across party lines and helping to heal our divisions, while underscoring the essential role of Congress in advancing our nation’s interests around the world.
Following an attempted coup to remove Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from power in 1991, Dick and I were convinced that the Soviet Union — a nation with more than 10,000 nuclear weapons pointed at the United States — was coming apart. We proposed spending U.S. defense dollars to secure and help destroy Soviet nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Some criticized the effort as “aid to the Soviet military.” But for Dick and me, this was about protecting our constituents, the American people and the world from a nuclear holocaust. It didn’t matter that we were from different political parties. Together, we overcame the skepticism and got leaders in both parties to see that U.S. security depended on cooperation with Moscow to ensure that the massive Soviet arsenal was secure and safely reduced.
The “Nunn-Lugar” program deactivated more than 7,600 nuclear warheads and destroyed more than 2,600 nuclear missiles and their launchers. It also eliminated more than 4,100 metric tons of chemical weapons and secured dozens of Soviet-era weapons facilities, as well as weapons-usable nuclear materials. Three nations — Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan — gave up their nuclear arsenals, voluntarily removing their fingers from the nuclear trigger. None of this would have happened without Dick Lugar.
Dick brought the same energy and focus to other critical issues, and his accomplishments were equally impressive. During the Reagan era, he played a pivotal role in ending apartheid and advancing peace and democracy in South Africa and the Philippines, preserving and ultimately improving relationships that remain crucial to our security in Africa and the Pacific. As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he worked across the aisle to sustain school lunches for America’s children and food for Americans most in need, while strengthening the ability of U.S. farmers to compete overseas. Less known but equally important was his work to create opportunities for women and minorities.
The secret to Dick’s success was his rare ability to combine strong conviction with a practical eye toward achieving results. Dick knew that a representative in Congress was elected not simply to preach his principles, but also to apply them toward improving the general welfare of both his constituents and the nation, consistent with the oath of office to preserve and protect our Constitution. In our democracy, getting important things done inevitably requires a coalition built by working with a diverse group of colleagues, most of whom arrive in Congress with passionate convictions. Dick worked in good faith with both Republicans and Democrats, earning respect and trust for his grasp of detail and ability to find common ground.
There are some who believe Dick Lugar’s defeat in 2012 marked the end of an era; I don’t agree, and I know Dick wouldn’t, either. Yes, our politics have grown darker since 2012, but it is becoming more apparent to more people how costly this has become in terms of hindering the United States’ ability to effectively meet our challenges, both at home and abroad.
The only way to successfully address critical issues in our country — reducing both security and climate threats, closing the income gap, expanding access to health care while reducing runaway costs, coming to grips with the dark side of new technologies — is by building political coalitions across party lines and treating our colleagues with dignity, civility and respect. This was the “Lugar Way.” If we are to bind our nation more closely at home and make our nation more secure abroad, we must learn from his example.