By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
With just a few short weeks left in office, Indiana’s longest serving member of Congress exhorted an audience of high school students to venture into the public sphere with a willingness to seek common ground with others.
Speaking to hundreds of students identified by their school principals as “tomorrow’s leaders” on Saturday, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar decried the polarized politics that grips the nation’s capital where he’s served for 36 years.
“My hopes are that leaders in this room today will understand the virtue of talking to each other,” said the 80-year-old Lugar.
“That (you) are really prepared to listen, to understand, and to try to find solutions,” he said, “as opposed to attempting to intimidate each other, coerce each other ... or be involved in the suppression of ideas.”
Not once in his speech, which opened the 36th Richard G. Lugar Symposium for Tomorrow’s Leaders at the University of Indianapolis, did the Republican Lugar mention why he’s come to the end of his political career: his defeat in May by his primary opponent, tea party-backed Richard Mourdock, who decried Lugar’s record of reaching across the partisan aisle. Mourdock lost in the November election to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
But after describing at length the perilous world that the students are inheriting, Lugar told his audience of eager listeners that solutions to big problems — ranging from the pending fall off the “fiscal cliff” to continued instability in the Middle East — can only be solved when people of opposing views are willing to talk to each other.
“I trust this is a cyclical wave and better times are still to come,” Lugar said. “But it will not happen without persons like yourself.”
Lugar’s call for civility in politics came after he spoke at length about some of the pressing issues of the day, both foreign and domestic.
He spoke in detail about his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his role in crafting the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which provided billions of dollars in U.S. equipment and know-how to help Russia and former Soviet bloc nations safeguard and dismantle chemical and nuclear weapons.
The program, which Lugar crafted with a Georgia Democrat, former Sen. Sam Nunn, has led to the deactivation of more than 7,600 nuclear warheads.
He also talked about the nation’s growing federal debt, now at about $16 trillion, and about challenges of reducing that financial burden without cutting into politically popular entitlement programs or compromising the nation’s defense.
He talked, too, about how the U.S. has taken on extraordinary responsibilities for keeping the world safe.
“We are a country that literally holds the world together,” Lugar said.
Lugar, who officially leaves office when Sen.-elect Joe Donnelly is sworn in on Jan. 3, also offered his audience advice on how to be good leaders by invoking an idea: “This idea that your life is going to be one in which you are open to new ideas, new persons, and new friends.”
On Friday, Lugar announced he’ll be rejoining the faculty of the University of Indianapolis in January and help the university launch a high-level Washington, D.C., internship and study program for students from Indiana and across the nation.