INDIANAPOLIS – Chauffeured in a golf cart, former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, rolls through and past mountains of food stacked on shelves.
I stride along behind, beside and sometimes ahead of Lugar, 85, as he takes a tour of Gleaners, a huge food bank on the southwest side of Indianapolis. The food bank is opening a new regional produce processing center that will serve 40 food banks in seven states.
Lugar’s here to help cut the ribbon and deliver a few remarks about the importance of combatting hunger and food insecurity.
The subject is in his wheelhouse, because it’s one of the primary areas of focus of the Lugar Center, the not-for-profit think tank he opened after leaving the Senate a little more than four years ago.
When the tour ends and the golf cart comes to a stop, Lugar speaks to a group of Gleaners supporters, anti-hunger activists and reporters.
Lugar being Lugar, his remarks are solemn on the surface but have a subtext that punctures stodginess if one listens carefully enough.
The bulk of his fame and enormous reputation, of course, comes from his labors in the linked fields of foreign relations, national security and nuclear non-proliferation. He is viewed, at home and abroad, as both an architect and apostle for a saner and safer world.
Cutting a ribbon at a food bank may seem to stretch some distance from those issues, but Lugar makes a subtle but telling connection between the concerns.
After making the moral argument that no person should go hungry amid plenty, he hints at a thesis – again, the subtle subtext puncturing, provocatively, the surface solemnity – that we can’t possibly have a secure and peaceful country or world if there are people struggling to feed themselves.
Hunger itself, he suggests, can be a weapon of mass destruction.
Almost as subtle is Lugar’s soft-voiced contention that we too often spend so much time arguing about how to solve a problem that we don’t get around to actually solving the problem.
To illustrate his point, he reaches back and draws forth a story from more than a half-century ago, when he was a school board member in Indianapolis, just at the dawn of his career in politics and public service.
He says there was a problem with hunger, then, too — particularly with what were then known as latch-key children. The fact that they weren’t eating was affecting, among other things, their performance in school, which, in turn, threatened their success in life and their ability to support themselves.
Lugar, along with another school board member, championed a federal program that would provide meals for the children. He found himself a target of criticism from several places, including the Chamber of Commerce.
In opposing him – and, in opposing feeding the latch-key children – his critics used the same argument.
“We do not accept federal aid,” Lugar recalls.
He pauses, then says that this shows that “doing good does not appeal to everyone at the same time.”
Then he circles back to the problem. He talks about how roughly one out of six Hoosiers is food insecure – meaning that they don’t know where their next meal will come from.
Or whether it will come.
Lugar says, with his gift for understatement, that this problem is “important.”
He winds back to his theme, that subtle subtext, that squabbling over the how of solving a problem does not relieve us of the responsibility of dealing with the problem.
“We are practical people,” Lugar says, speaking to Hoosiers’ longstanding faith in common sense before linking that heritage to the larger moral challenge.
We are, he says, “determined to do better.”
As Richard Lugar speaks, mountains of donated food sit on shelves in a warehouse so huge it needs to be traveled by cart.
And each item on each shelf is a practical solution to a moral problem.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.