More than 30 years before the funeral for former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, Lugar and Mike Pence came through Rushville, Indiana on a joint campaign swing. Lugar, the elder Hoosier statesman, was graciously lending his credibility to the much-younger Pence, then a first-time congressional candidate.
The funeral in early May was a final reunion of sorts for the men, who in some ways stood at opposite poles of Indiana politics—urban versus rural, pragmatic versus ideological. Nevertheless, Pence delivered a heartfelt eulogy honoring the longtime Indiana senator, who died on April 28 at the age of 87.
As the sole politics reporter for the tiny Rushville daily, I had to pause in covering zoning disputes and old guys with odd hobbies to interview the two politicians that late summer day in 1988. The contrast was jolting. Pence was just a kid, really (like me), not quite 30, slender, and alight with the energy of conviction.
I had met him earlier when he was bicycling through Indiana’s 2nd District. He was trying to unseat the longtime representative, a professor from Ball State University at the northern, moderately industrial end of the east-central Indiana district, a man who balanced his liberal views with strong constituent service. Pence was relying on right-wing positions he thought would appeal to the socially and fiscally conservative district of small towns, farm fields, and squirrel-filled woodlots.
Lugar, by contrast, was the old warhorse. The mayor of Indianapolis from 1968 to 1975 and Indiana senator starting in 1977, he piled up accomplishments by seeking compromise within his more diverse urban constituency. The senator was in his mid-50s by then, but I was struck by how tired and dead his eyes looked. He was a hard worker, and no doubt was campaigning with young wannabes all over the state. It was apparently wearing on him.
In the election, Lugar won with his politics of defanged, successful pragmatism. Pence’s more strident campaign was a loser.
It is telling how completely the compass of political success has reversed since then. Pence finally won in 2000, and Lugar was primaried out of office by an aggressively conservative challenger 12 years later, the same year Barack Obama won re-election—without Indiana, which narrowly went for him in 2008.
In his eulogy, Pence said, “In my travels around the world as congressman and governor, I was always struck that right after I told people I was from Indiana, they would smile and say, ‘Dick Lugar’ … This is truly the end of an era.” Former Sen. Sam Nunn said, “Cooperation and compromise in politics is often misunderstood today. Some take it as meaning you give up your principles. Dick Lugar never, ever compromised his principles.”
Absolutely true. But you don’t have to compromise your principles for your principles to end up compromised.
On the south Mississippi River, there is a U.S. Corps of Engineers flood control structure built to keep the river flowing toward New Orleans instead of following its strong inclination to divert into the Atchafalaya Basin, leaving the Big Easy in a hard way. Completed in 1963, it worked well until a massive flood a decade later profoundly undermined the structure, scouring out a huge, submerged cavity beneath it. Collapse was a possibility.
John McPhee, a writer for The New Yorker, wrote brilliantly about it in the magazine and later in his book, “The Control of Nature.” Today we’re in deep water ourselves.
“Some men have uteruses.” Free speech faces de-platforming. Lurid drag queens read to school kids as cowed parents cringe. Kids wearing MAGA hats are attacked in public — or else they’re attacking Vietnam vets. It’s hard to tell, especially when fractious social networks join in, filling a reliable media vacuum with sometimes contradictory cell phone videos.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump is either the most woefully unprepared, crass, and cruel president ever or a needed, if jolting, change from politicians who value Beltway friendships above duty to the voters. Depending on your politics, he’s simultaneously a symptom of or a corrective to the nation’s distress. Maybe both.
There has been a cultural scouring going on, a hollowing out of values beneath a smooth—but increasingly roiled—surface of political accord. It is fashionable to bemoan the loss of Lugar’s brand of political comity. But maybe that’s just the hidden damage done by submerged but powerful political currents finally surfacing.
It’s happened before. The Civil War came after decades of trying to compromise uncompromisable differences, leading finally to a massive effusion of blood. It’s hard to ignore its remarkable parallels with the present-day battle over abortion—like slavery, a fundamentally uncompromisable clash of contradicting purposes and angry rhetoric. As someone tweeted sardonically this week, mocking a pro-abortion slam-line: “If you don’t want a slave, don’t buy one.”
As Christmas 1990 approached after Pence’s second unsuccessful run for Congress, I bumped into him at the mall in Greenwood, Indiana. He had taken a pasting in the election, losing by a larger margin than two years before. He attributed it to going too negative for plainspoken but polite Midwestern folk.
Now after successful terms in Congress and in the Indiana governor’s office, he’s vice president to a man who sailed to victory on negativity the experts said would sink him like the Titanic. What didn’t work in 1988 worked in 2016, especially in the quiet, friendly small towns and farm fields that Pence couldn’t previously win. It seems their irritation finally outweighed their manners.
It is ironic, but not necessarily a bad thing, that Lugar’s soft-spoken pragmatism may have contributed to that sea change.