Editor's note: This story has been updated.
Former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican foreign policy sage known for leading efforts to help the former Soviet states dismantle and secure much of their nuclear arsenal, but whose reputation for working with Democrats cost him his final campaign, died Sunday. He was 87.
Lugar, who also was a former Indianapolis mayor, worked to alert Americans about the threat of terrorism years before “weapons of mass destruction” became a common phrase following the Sept. 11 attacks.
The longtime Republican senator from Indiana helped start a program that destroyed thousands of former Soviet nuclear and chemical weapons after the Cold War ended — then warned during a short-lived 1996 run for president about the danger of such devices falling into the hands of terrorists.
“Every stockpile represents a theft opportunity for terrorists and a temptation for security personnel who might seek to profit by selling weapons on the black market,” Lugar said in 2005. “We do not want the question posed the day after an attack on an American military base.”
The soft-spoken and thoughtful former Rhodes Scholar was a leading Republican voice on foreign policy matters during his 36 years in the U.S. Senate, but whose reputation of working with Democrats ultimately cost him the office in 2012. He died Sunday at age 87 at a hospital in Virginia, where he was being treated for a rare neurological disorder called chronic inflammatory demylinating polyneuropathy, or CIPD, the Lugar Center in Washington said in a statement.
Former Indiana Congressman Luke Messer described Lugar as an “incredibly kind and gracious person” who always took the time from his busy life to meet and help people whether world leaders, Senate colleagues or constituents in Indiana.
Messer heard stories growing up about Lugar from his grandmother, who was a ward chairwoman for the Republican Party. The senator had visited the grandmother’s house, seeking support when he first entered public life. From watching Lugar and having met him a couple of times, Messer was inspired to run for election himself.
“It’s a sad day for our state,” Messer said of Lugar’s passing.
Young Hoosiers continued to be influenced by Lugar. The Fishers High School We the People team is in Washington, D.C., Monday for the national We the People competition. As the students began the championship round, they opened by dedicating session to the senator.
Lugar’s long popularity in Indiana gave him the freedom to concentrate largely on foreign policy and national security matters — a focus highlighted by his collaboration with Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn on a program under which the United States paid to dismantle and secure thousands of nuclear warheads and missiles in the former Soviet states after the Cold War ended.
Lugar served for decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, twice as chairman, where he helped steer arms reduction pacts for the presidential administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, supported an expansion of NATO and favored aid to Nicaragua’s Contra rebels.
“Lugar was a leader not only in the Senate but also on the world stage, where he worked tirelessly to bring pressure to end apartheid in South Africa and enforce treaties that destroyed Soviet weapons of mass destruction,” Vice President Mike Pence, a former governor of Indiana, said in a statement.
Another former governor, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, who spent more than a decade as chief of staff to Lugar, said, “The world is safer from nuclear danger because of him.”
Lugar tried to translate his foreign policy expertise into a 1996 presidential run. But his campaign for the GOP nomination went badly from the start. His kickoff rally began just hours after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, and he struggled to build name recognition and support.
He withdrew a year into the race after failing to win a single convention delegate, but not before foreshadowing the threat of terrorism that would become all too real on Sept. 11, 2001. Three of his television ads depicted mushroom clouds and warned of the growing danger of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorist groups.
Lugar’s time as a Washington foreign policy expert was the highlight of a political career that began with his election to the Indianapolis school board in the early 1960s. City GOP leaders encouraged him to run for mayor in 1967. He spent eight years at the city’s helm.
He first ran for Senate in 1974, narrowly losing to Sen. Birch Bayh in a Democratic landslide after the Watergate scandal. He ran again two years later and easily unseated three-term Democratic Sen. Vance Hartke, launching a 36-year Capitol Hill career that made him Indiana’s longest-serving senator.
He built a reputation as someone willing to work across the aisle and showed he could buck his party, notably with two major disagreements with President Ronald Reagan.
In 1986, Reagan was inclined to accept the rigged election that would have kept Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in office. But Lugar went to the islands as an election observer and said Reagan was misinformed. Lugar’s stand shifted U.S. support to the ultimate winner, Corazon Aquino, bringing down Marcos.
In another break with Reagan, Lugar pushed through Congress — over the president’s veto — the economic sanctions that Nelson Mandela said played a crucial role in overthrowing white minority rule in South Africa.
At home, Lugar remained the Indiana GOP’s most popular figure, trouncing opponents with at least two-thirds of the vote in four straight elections.
He was the top Republican on the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee when he first worked with Obama, taking the then-Illinois senator with him to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan in 2005 to visit weapon dismantlement sites. He then co-sponsored 2007 legislation with Obama on eliminating stockpiles of shoulder-fired missiles.
Obama frequently cited his work with Lugar during the 2008 presidential campaign as evidence of his bipartisanship and foreign policy experience. Lugar endorsed John McCain but didn’t distance himself from Obama at the time.
That changed by Lugar’s 2012 re-election campaign.
The attacks on his conservatism — combined with voter wariness about his age and long Washington tenure and questions about him not owning a home in Indiana since the late 1970s — led to Lugar’s first defeat since 1974. His tea party-backed challenger, Richard Mourdock, grabbed 60 percent of the GOP primary vote.
Lugar’s nuclear disarmament work with Nunn, the Democratic senator, led to about 7,600 Soviet nuclear warheads being deactivated and the destruction of more than 900 intercontinental ballistic missiles by the time Lugar left office, according to U.S. military figures. The program is credited with removing all nuclear weapons from the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus.
Born April 4, 1932, in Indianapolis, Lugar graduated at the top of his classes at both Indianapolis Shortridge High School and at Denison University in Ohio. At Denison, he met his future wife, Charlene. They married in 1956 and had four sons.