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Richard Lugar's next chapter: A Q&A with Indiana's longest-serving U.S. senator

Richard Lugar's next chapter: A Q&A with Indiana's longest-serving U.S. senator

WASHINGTON | Richard Lugar takes a seat at a well-worn circular conference table. In an office filled with shiny, new fixtures, it's a notable relic from his 36-year career in the Senate.

At this table, two decades earlier, Russian officials sat down with Lugar and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, to make an unusual request. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia was bankrupt and needed money and technicians to secure its arsenal of nuclear weapons.

"It was one of these situations in history that really could not have been foretold, that a great power would be coming to another great power and saying help disarm us and protect us. But that’s what happened," Lugar recounts. 

The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program secured and dismantled thousands of nuclear warheads, intercontinental ballistic missiles and tons of chemical weapons. The program has continued through several administrations and the retirement of Senator Nunn. In 2005, U.S. Senator Barack Obama joined the effort and made his first trip to Russia with Lugar.

"We had the very unfortunate experience right off the bat in Perm, (Russia) we were incarcerated," Lugar says. "There were allegations that I was actually a spy and the Russians were trying to get on our Air Force plane." 

After several hours being held in the basement of the Perm airport, the senators were freed.

As for the table, which had passed from Nunn's office to Lugar's office, it made another journey from the U.S. Capitol to the office building in D.C.'s Dupont Circle neighborhood. Here, a month after leaving the Senate, the 80-year-old Lugar discussed his future plans and his continued focus on securing the world from potential dangers.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and space.

Q: It's been a month since you left the senate after a 36-year career. What's the transition been like?

A: It's been a very busy transition. Before we left, I knew that I would have opportunities for affiliation with Indiana University, University of Indianapolis, Georgetown University and German Marshall Fund. In each of these categories, we've had very nice celebrations. Out at Indiana University with President (Michael) McRobbie and the great new international school they're building there is going to utilize hundreds of faculty members. They already have a great language program there. This really will make IU the pre-eminent leader in international studies. And that's very exciting. I'll be on the advisory committee, co-chair with Lee Hamilton, and we'll have some days on campus visiting with students.

At the University of Indianapolis last December, at our annual meeting with the high school students all over the state, we announced there would be a Lugar Academy there, and they're going through, likewise, teaching assignments on campus. Here in this office we're going to be working with interns recruited by the University of Indianapolis to come here for a Washington experience. We will help organize their assignments in various offices as well as I will spend time with them to hopefully enrich their experience.

Q: What kind of activities do you envision the interns doing here?

A: We've had in my Senate office for all 36 years, interns that were there all year-round. In our office, they handled regular affairs, day by day. They worked with staff members. They were on the telephone. They were writing letters. They were reading materials in preparation for hearings and speeches. I spent usually a couple hours with them in question and answer sessions each week, making certain that they were getting the information they needed. It will be different assignments in different offices here.

Q: Are you going to be able to maintain some of your staff in this new endeavor?

A: We're hopeful of doing that. Beyond the assignments I mentioned, the German Marshall Fund deals with ambassadors throughout Washington. I already had a breakfast with 25 ambassadors. We're talking about how there can be much greater understanding between ambassadors and Congress.

But as you mention, we have staff members that have great skills in trying to control weapons of mass destruction and in feeding the world, world nutrition. So we're hopeful that we'll be able to gain some traction through grants by various foundations that would like for me to continue on this work. And if that is so, we will be able to employ some of our most valued staff members in the past who will continue their research, publications, lectures. In other words, we will be a hub of activity in trying to advance these projects.

Q: You mentioned controlling weapons of mass destruction. How do you see yourself out of the Senate continuing to influence these global security issues?

A: Well essentially, I found that even though I'm not in the Senate, most of the people interested in these issues still want to visit with me. I'm in the process of determining how many speeches and appearances that I want to make in the United States and other parts of the world as invitations come in.

This is a new life for me, I've got to try to determine how to allocate time, how much time it takes physically to travel to South Korea or to Baku, Azerbaijan. But in any event, there is considerable interest. So for me, it's a new livelihood and profession. Most of these appearances have substantial honorarium attached to them and also opportunities to be with people in different locations throughout our country or throughout the world.

Q: Food security is high on your list of priorities, can you talk about that issue?

A: Fundamentally, every country in the world is potentially vulnerable. Most countries that have considerable wealth and a backlog of agricultural experience have been able to feed their populations for some time. The facts of life however, are that many countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa have had chronic food shortages. This happens because of lack of production skills or research in proper seed and fertilizer. Climate change and droughts in various countries have created huge shortages. This doesn't work for a stable world.

This was inflicted in Indiana, so close at hand, this past year. On my own farm for example, we were back down to 40 bushels per acre of corn (because of the drought). No amount of scientific farming can overcome that. So to get to your point about what kind of research and ideas are needed, first of all, trade policy. There is no area where things are more gummed up than in the foreign trade of food. And in part, it's because of self-preservation. Some countries, if they are in difficulty, husband everything they have within their country and do not export any of it. Likewise, there are some countries that have protectionist sentiments and are trying to keep certain things out. But it's not a free flow. And the food of the world is becoming more expensive. This is to the benefit of Indiana farmers – the cost of corn and soybeans is terrific. But even in Indiana, feeding chickens and cattle, not so good. The livestock industry has been heading down. But if that's occurring in Indiana, a prosperous place with Purdue's research, heaven help those areas where there are not all these things going for them.

One big argument we're going to have is over genetically-modified seed for example. The genetically-modified argument, is creating tension in over 60 countries that are convinced that somehow genetically-modified anything would be injurious to either the health or the environment. That's particularly true of European countries, that have great influence over Africa. The effect has been to completely stall the progress in Africa. The Gates Foundation, USAID, others have tried to overcome this in a small way. This really calls for a monumental change of outlook in the science itself. People are coming to the conclusion that not only is genetically modified safe, but it's absolutely essential if you're going to get the yields required to feed countries or feed the world. But it's a big argument and one in which I've been engaged and hopefully will be more successful.

Q: Is there also a role for the farm technology we have, exporting that for our economic benefit and to help these issues in other countries?

A: Obviously we have farm equipment and machinery that are the world's best. For example, fields now in Indiana can be planted maybe 100 acres in a day. Frequently, there will have been soil tests so that using computers on board the equipment doing the planting, you can plant a little more here or there, or change the fertilizer mix, or do things that are going to be beneficial for production. And likewise, the harvest can occur with that degree of speed.

So as a result, for example in Indiana, we have increasingly young farmers graduating from Purdue, sometimes they do not have a great deal of money. They rent land from people who are older who are no longer doing the farming, or from families living out of state. Put together maybe 2,500 acres over which they can best amortize the cost of the equipment they have purchased. Bit by bit, they make money, they buy land, often from the people they're renting from, and this is an evolution that makes a younger agricultural group a very good thing for our state, as well as our country.

The problem is how do you translate that to other countries? Obviously, our experience is useful for others to observe. Our equipment is very useful for them to have. Even the computer arrangements and the algorithms involved in agriculture are incredibly important exports of American knowledge.

Q: Indiana, in addition to being a farming state is a very big manufacturing state. You mention international trade. We have our international Port, which you visited during your campaign. We have mayors that have made trips to China. So in this increasingly global environment, how do Hoosiers leverage globalism to enhance the local economy?

A: If I can digress for a moment to the biographical sketch, I came back from the Navy and my brother from service in the Army to a factory my dad tried to manage, my grandfather founded, making food machinery – long band ovens, cutting machines and what have you. The difficulty was that by the time we got there, and we knew this was the case, a wave was about to hit the rocks. Sales were down. The whole situation, given the absence after the death of my father, had created this vacuum. So fortunately, my brother had a Purdue engineering degree. I was purely a liberal arts denizen and the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford and so forth, and the Navy.

But my contribution was to come over here to Washington; Homer Capehart, the senator from Indiana, got an appointment for me at the export/import bank. This was not a well-known institution in Indiana at that time. As a matter of fact, the loan guarantee that I got from the export/import bank for a sale of our equipment in Mexico was perhaps the first one for a small business in Indiana and certainly, maybe aside from Eli Lilly Co., the only people acquainted with export/import in that part of the world. But this led to exports to Mexico, and then to South American countries, ultimately to the Philippines, and the resurrection of Thomas L. Green Co. so that we were able to employ more people, expand to over 100 persons on the factory floor and had worldwide business in which people came to Indianapolis from these countries to see our equipment and visit with us personally.

To get to the larger point, when I was elected mayor, I had the good fortune of being asked by President Nixon to go with Pat Moynihan – later became Senator Moynihan, but was then in the administration  to Brussels to NATO to represent the cities of America, and so I invited all the mayors of the world to come to Indianapolis the following year, not being bashful about this, and about 50 came. This reinvigorated all of the various nation groups in Indianapolis, whether it was the Germans or the Serbs or whoever, and they all had parties for their nationals who had come. But it also brought the attention to Indianapolis that I was hopeful for so that all these people having made their plane trips sort of understood what was going on. Then I could deal with as mayor and attempted really to invigorate the exports of all of our citizens.

When I came to Washington, I sought membership on the foreign relations committee as one of my first assignments. I didn't get on the committee for a couple years, but I had 34 years of service altogether. This led to very concentrated travel throughout the world, in part for weapons of mass destruction, but a lot of it dealt with trade and dealt with ties to Indiana. For example, we always had a story to tell about some group or some city or some factory in Indiana that were going to be friendly to whoever was there. So we developed a Rolodex that was very substantial. And this I treasured, because it led to all sorts of interesting contacts in Indiana, as well as in Washington as we dealt with this.

Q: Do you know offhand how many countries you visited in your time in the Senate?

A: I should probably make a list sometime, but I'm certain over 50 and probably upwards of that.

Q: When you entered the Senate, the major threat was the Soviet Union. As you leave the Senate, we're in the midst of the Global War on Terror. What do you see as the major security threats 20 or 30 years from now?

A: I think one of them will revolve around the food problem we were just talking about. Although, I'm very hopeful that countries will be enlightened, that they will adopt better agricultural practices starting with seed and fertilizer. I'm not overconfident of this, given the last 50 years or so. If not food, fuel. That will be the other major problem, that supplies of oil, natural gas, biofuels, whatever we have available, may not be enough to take care of all the people that have a rising standard of living.

The Chinese situation is sort of instructive in this with hundreds of millions of people moving from the farms and rural settings where frequently there were no lights, no constant source of power for fuel. They hope to farm enough to feed themselves. They move to cities, where they turn on the lights or heat a small apartment. It's a huge revolution occurring, and so these are going to be situations in which countries covet what they need.

But at the same time, getting back to our earlier business about feeding people, people will fight before they die. Their national sovereignty will really depend on their ability to produce this degree of security and living for people. So in the midst of this, we will continue to have, I suppose, the fractionalization that comes with huge numbers of tribes that have different religions, different economic and political philosophies. We are becoming acquainted with this much more than we really wanted to. As we got into war with Iraq for example, and tried to figure out how to deal with at least three major groups there. In Afghanistan, we have found an even more complex problem of many more tribes that have never been part of a central state, or thought of that. As a matter of fact, (they) don't even recognize the boundaries of Afghanistan, they say these were imposed by Europeans a long while back.

Skipping, because of current events, to Mali, where there is chaos. The French have come in, tried to take over Timbuktu and various ancient situations, but people say "who are the terrorists there? Are they al Qaida?" Well scholars say, "not exactly." But nevertheless, Osama bin Laden before he died often pointed out that al Qaida really could reach out to all sorts of disparate groups who were unhappy, if not actual terrorists. And so you have a sort of amalgamation of these sorts of things. Who tried to knock out the oil plant in Algeria? Well a group of Algerians, but it dates back to how the Algerian government was formed, the authoritarian nature of that and so forth.

So now the United States is coming to sort of an overall policy, although it's not really engraved this way. We would like to have stations in various places where we can get better intelligence to begin with and then if necessary, use drones to strike at people who we believe are potential danger to the United States without having to send a battalion of troops with all the logistic support, which is going to be prohibitively expensive given the number of countries.

All I'm saying is the general lack of cohesion of governance in many Middle Eastern countries, certainly African countries, is apparent and probably is not going to go away in our time. The question will be then, in terms of our own security, are we able to have comprehensive intelligence to know where the malefactors are? And drones and other devices of this variety when in extreme cases in terms of our national security we need to knock somebody out, we can do that. That's part of our security problem.

Q: On the topic of energy, which you mentioned, with energy shortages being a concern, there's a tension between that and the notion of climate change.

A: Yes, and the environment, likewise for instance in the United States where we have a huge amount of new oil.

Q: Exactly, and I wanted to get into your support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which is controversial from an environmental standpoint. How do you balance the environmental concerns with the need for that energy?

A: Well, I believe first of all, that we are going to continually fight until we solve the problem of energy independence in the United States. One president after another in their State of the Union addresses has lamented the fact that we are tremendously vulnerable, as we have been throughout the last century, to the lack of energy supplies in the United States. Franklin Roosevelt attempted to bring a partial solution to this by his treaties or agreements with the Saudi monarchs. This, however, has led to, some would say, huge defense expenditures for the last 50 years in the Middle East to preserve our ability to actually have that oil delivered to the United States.

Likewise, other countries that have oil, that have frequently been unfriendly. But until recently, we were still importing, despite all these entreaties for energy independence, two-thirds of our oil supply. Now one could say, "why don't you do something else?" For the time being at least, our engine – motor system – in the United States has been largely upon oil. Oil by in large is less productive of CO2 than coal. But this has not led to the French or the Chinese from using much more coal than any other country has used on Earth. The British, supplanting the United States in terms of CO2 used in that direction. All I'm saying is that in order for our economy to work, for normal Americans to enjoy having their houses heated, their cars running, other things we take for granted, we need these supplies.

So as a result, the XL pipeline is a good example of a situation of which the Canadians have a supply that's a fairly large one. The production of all that pipeline will create jobs for Americans at a time when the jobs issue is still right upfront. Now furthermore, it provides for us, if we do not need the particular kind of oil – and some would say that the Canadian oil is heavy crude, not the light crude that is better – what if we could export it? This might help our balance of payments. The consequence of not doing this is that the Canadians have said quite frankly that they are going to sell every bit of it to China. So it's going to reappear somewhere in the Earth's atmosphere, but in this case the Chinese would be the beneficiary and we would have lost a good bit of friendship with the close people up in Canada.

Now in the United States, we have a situation with fracking, not only in South Dakota and North Dakota, which has been remarkable, but in Pennsylvania and Ohio. We're now importing only one-third of the oil we use. It's a turnaround that is hard to comprehend in terms of our national argument. It has led on occasion to gasoline prices going down rather than up, even in a time that we've tried to say the only way we can suppress all this is with a carbon tax, some way of at least stopping our use. I'm all in favor of conservation and the legislation that I've produced year after year provided practical ways in which Americans in buildings, either governmental or private, or in their cars or in whatever use they may in their homes on their farms, would use less because it was being used in more satisfactory ways. But the incentive for you as a business, for example, the Empire State Building is a capital case. They spent $15 million revamping their electrical and heating system and they paid that loan back in about two years and they're making money on it. The point is, it's good business as well as conservation. But you have to have at least the confidence that you can produce the BTUs that you need.

Q: I want to get back to education, and it was great seeing the Gary West Side sweatpants you have there. Can you talk about the partnership you have had with the Gary schools during your career?

A: Almost annually I had visits to high schools in Gary. Quentin Smith, a remarkable educator with whom I had very close ties, was very helpful in my understanding of the Gary school situation really from the beginning. So I leaned on him a great deal for information as well as to try to be helpful. But this was really true of my visits around the state. We're always involved with the high school students, and this is why at the University of Indianapolis, we had this annual event in which we invited two juniors from each high school in Indiana to come to Indianapolis for a day in which I would address the group with a comprehensive statement, lots of question and answers for hours. We had other experts come in and so forth. Typically, these students would put this in their dossiers as one of the highlights. And we will continue that.

Q: One of the things we wrestle with in our area in particular is the notion that educating young people – and you have great universities in Indiana – but the issue is after they graduate, the brain drain and the fact that there aren't the quality jobs for college graduates, how do you remedy that?

A: I've worked in the last couple of years especially with Tom Snyder and Ivy Tech, Teresa Lubbers, who had responsibility in the state capitol, was a former staff member of mine, as well as her husband, Mark Lubbers. Because they are working on how do you bridge the gap? In other words, how do you move from whatever level of education a student has to a job? This is illustrated up in the northern part of Indiana where there are several scientific, chemical and medical firms, they're big firms with good jobs, and to their credit, they've been prepared to take on board a good number of students. Some are doing work at Ivy Tech or Ivy Tech is set up in Indiana, sort of way stations for colleges and so forth that match where the industries are, that might have a specific knowledge that would be able to make the transfer. It's absolutely critical. Government can play a definite role in bringing the parties together as opposed to simply counting the statistics and lamenting that it's too bad that folks can't find a job.

Q: How much time are you going to spend here and then back in Indiana working with students in Indianapolis and Bloomington?

A: It remains to be seen, because we're just in the first four weeks of this new life. First of all, it's taken some effort just to move out. I think 1,300 or 1,400 boxes. Now about 1,000 of those have been deposited at IU in the archives. They have a very good archivist, and that's why we made that selection. Lee Hamilton's archives are there, and so it's nice always to work with him. So that left another 300 boxes to come over here, or somewhere en route. We've set up temporarily a situation where there are five offices that are adjoining here. Now whether we'll be able to employ, as I talked about earlier, the talented staff member that I want and need for these projects will depend on our ability to raise the money to do this. So that remains to be seen.

Q: So how are you looking to raise the money and finance the operation?

A: Well, there are many foundations that are interested in what we are doing, so these are conversations that are ongoing and hopefully we'll be successful in the months to come. Meanwhile, I've been doing various appointments, projects, back and forth to Indiana for various things. I'm going back shortly to the Rotary Club in Indianapolis. They're going to celebrate their centennial. They're going to have the international president there, and I'm going to be honored as Rotarian of the Century. I was very moved by that, because it's meant so much to me.

Q: It is a big change for you obviously. We've seen some of your fellow senators leave office expressing criticism of the workings of the Senate. Sen. Evan Bayh comes to mind, who was outspoken in his criticism as he left. Do you share those frustrations, or do you have a little bit of a different perspective?

A: Well I thoroughly enjoyed my service in the Senate. I feel grateful that the people of Indiana gave me that opportunity, and I would not have run for re-election if I did not want to continue to serve. The projects I had under way, the things I was doing all over Indiana all over America, all over the world, were very important to me and still are. And I'm hoping to continue many of them. But I enjoyed my colleagues. I appreciate the comments that are made about the partisanship and the degree of difficulty of getting work done. It reflects this particular time in America where people are very disillusioned because of lack of jobs, lack of opportunities, worry about their families, not certain how this fits in with the rest of the world, not getting the answers they need. So that frustration, I can understand. But at the same time, I'm not going to attribute all of this to the Senate or the Constitution of the United States was drawn up ineptly. It think it's much more a question of trying to be persuasive and trying to make the best arguments. Likewise, being able to listen to other people and to try to work with them to find solutions.

One of the great things about my opportunity to serve in the Senate was that I had very good times in all parts of the state of Indiana. In other words, I thoroughly enjoyed my eight years as mayor of Indianapolis. But the concentration was on Indianapolis. Election to the Senate brought a wonderful new constituency statewide, so I had good reason to travel throughout the state to find new friends and forge great relationships, which I did. I will miss that part of the work.


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