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U.S. Sen. Richard "Dick" Lugar

Former U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind.

INDIANAPOLIS | Civility is the lubricant that makes American democracy work effectively and it's needed now more than ever.

That's the message two Hoosier statesmen with 70 years of combined congressional experience shared Wednesday with top state officials attending the annual conference of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.

Former U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, unashamedly advocated for government action based on respect within and between political parties and focused on problem-solving over point-scoring.

"We have to respect all with whom we deal. Treating them courteously, with civility, and not attributing to them bad motivations, unpatriotic or whatever," Hamilton said. "Every person that you deal with you have to show respect for their dignity.

"That's easy to do if you're talking about people who think very much like you do, who are good friends. ... The test comes when you're dealing with dissenters, or with people with whom you do not agree."

Lugar said he faced and overcame that challenge in the 1990s working across party lines with U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., to win approval of legislation spending U.S. funds and deploying Americans to Russia to help dismantle the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union.

"There are moments in the history of our country ... in which it is very important to have respect, to have courtesy, to understand that somebody else may have a different point of view," Lugar said. "It may, as a matter of fact, save your life and the lives of your family and your country.

"It is worth thinking about civility, to say the least."

Both men attributed recent increases in political incivility to some elected officials who fail to understand, or choose to ignore, that their job is to bargain and compromise for the good of their state or the nation, not demagogue to the point where the government is forced to shut down.

"It's a very easy thing for any of you to go into a room where you have differences of opinion and blow it apart. I know, because I've done it on several occasions," Hamilton said.

"What takes political skill is to go into a room with differences of opinion and bring people together behind a solution. And I don't see how you can exercise that skill without civility."

Lugar said voters also have a responsibility to hold politicians accountable when they fail to act with civility and should not reward candidates or officeholders who crucify their political opponents, even if such behavior tends to get more attention than respectful actions.

The duo emphasized that despite occasional appearances to the contrary, hope for civility in government is not lost. After all, they said, the United States has been through and survived far more dire threats.

"I believe that self-government is one of the greatest inventions from the mind of man," Hamilton said. "It's very hard to make it work, but it can work, and it's the best we've got."

To read about the Gary Chamber and The Times Media Co.'s Community Civility Counts campaign, visit www.nwi.com/civilitycounts.

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.