---- — In October 2012, at a dinner with friends, I found myself sitting next to woman who’d grown up in Russia. Finding out I was a reporter, she demanded to know why Indiana Republicans had months earlier cast aside longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar.
She couldn’t understand why Lugar’s decades of reaching across the aisle had led to his vilification by the tea party in the Republican primary, ending his long political career.
“He saved my life,” she said, and the lives of millions of others.
Growing up as the Soviet Union collapsed, her childhood fears were the stuff of nightmares. The forces protecting chemical and nuclear weapons were disintegrating into chaos and corruption, and she feared every day could be her last.
That conversation came back to me last week as I listened to Lugar and his longtime Democratic ally in disarmament, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, expound on the virtues of compromise.
Lugar, 81, and Nunn, 75, were guests of the University of Indianapolis at a public event titled “Diplomacy in a Dangerous World.” Moderator Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio deftly guided them through a recounting of the origins of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
Created in the early 1990s, that program has been credited with eliminating 10,000 weapons of mass destruction — including 7,600 nuclear warheads — before the disarmament agreement with Russia expired last year.
Lugar and Nunn spoke of a chilling conversation they once had with Russian officials they’d come to know. As the Cold War was ending, those officials told the senators, “You Americans must know that the security is breaking down around the nuclear weapons pointed at you.”
Lugar remembered asking, “What do you want?”
The response: “We’re going to need a lot of money.”
It was a hard sell for the men to make to their colleagues in Congress: Give aid to a longtime enemy who’d amassed enough weaponry to destroy the world several times over.
But, as Lugar and Nunn explained, their bipartisan pitch was self-survival. Billions of dollars for disarmament wasn’t a gift in foreign aid, it was critical for the security of the United States.
The men also talked of the origins of their friendship. It was Nunn, long fearful of how close the world’s superpowers were coming to mutual destruction, who reached out to Lugar.
The Georgia Democrat needed the Indiana Republican to convince President George H.W. Bush and Senate Republicans of the wisdom of his plan. In the final two days of the 1991 session of Congress, Nunn and Lugar succeeded in squeezing into the federal budget the first $400 million appropriation for the disarmament program.
In the bitter primary of 2012, members of Lugar’s own party pilloried him for being a champion of compromise. His longtime unwillingness to embrace partisan ideology likely cost him the election.
But it didn’t cost him his legacy. The Nunn-Lugar program that provided money and expertise to disarm chemical and nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union has since been expanded.
It has provided the umbrella under which chemical weapons in Libya were destroyed, equipment and expertise to neutralize the chemical weaponry of Syria, and the money to secure biological agents in laboratories in Asia and Africa.
I thought of my dinner companion as Lugar and Nunn voiced their worries about new threats of mass destruction that face the world. And the critical need for the world’s leaders — those in Congress included — is not to be blinded by ideology to their obligation to humanity.
“We’re in a race,” said Lugar, “between cooperation and catastrophe.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Kokomo Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.