From the Archives: A Conversation with Char Lugar

On September 8,1956, Richard Lugar and Charlene Smeltzer got hitched. Fifty years, one presidential campaign, several White House dinners, four sons and 11 grandchildren later, “Char” reminisces about her life with Indiana’s senior senator.

The guest list for the 2005 White House dinner honoring the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, included one “Mrs. Char Lugar, United States Senate Spouse.” It is, of course, a fitting title for a politician’s wife. Lugar, however, brings a special dignity and grace to the job. No wallflower, she bas been a frequent, active participant in the numerous public- and foreign-policy conferences that her husband traverses the country to attend. When he visits or hosts foreign dignitaries, she’s an able, reliable second. And when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, she proved to be his best campaigner, championing his positions whenever a tight schedule made it impossible for him to appear. And through all the senator’s many travels and late nights, she’s always been there to hold down the homestead and raise their four sons, Mark, Robert, John, and David.

Still, defining the 73-year-old Lugar solely in terms of her partnership with a great man seems inadequate. When she was co-president of her senior class at Denison University, in Ohio, Mr. Lugar, the other co-president, caught her attention because she saw that he, too, was “a mover and shaker.” And although Char, a Detroit native, has dutifully followed him from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to Indianapolis, and back to Washington, she has never stopped moving and shaking herself. A tireless advocate of maternity and childcare issues, Lugar has served on the March of Dimes’ national board of directors and, along with former Indiana first lady Susan Bayh, led the organization’s Campaign to Fight Premature Birth in Indiana. She co-chaired the Indiana Symposium on Child Care Financing and established the Charlene S. Lugar Birth Defects Foundation, which funds services for at-risk mothers in inner-city Indianapolis.        

On the eve of her 50th wedding anniversary, we asked Char what it really means to be a “United States Senate Spouse.”

Fifty years. That’s a long time.

When I think about it, I wonder, “How could 50 years have gone by so fast?” I used to think people who celebrated their 50th were old, decrepit, and in wheelchairs—not still enjoying life.

How will you celebrate your 50th?

We’re having dinner and a party in the Capitol. Then we’re taking a trolley tour of the city. Washington is so beautiful at night.

A party in the Capitol—one of the perks of marrying a U.S. senator.

We’ve traveled to South America, Europe, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia. We’ve gone to the White House together. We’ve taken part in celebrations on the White House lawn for significant events, such as when the Camp David Accords were signed and when the pope visited. Lots of occasions when you get to be with people you wouldn’t get to be with otherwise.

If things had gone differently in ’96, you might have spent a lot more time in the White House.

That was a fun time in our marriage, even though we hardly ever got to campaign together. If he was in Iowa, I was in New Hampshire, and vice versa. I’d return home, then get a call saying, “Don’t bother to unpack—you need to go to Iowa.” I learned to travel with two pantsuits. I figured what I wore in the morning I was going to be wearing the whole day, and hoped it was appropriate.

How did you feel about the prospect of being first lady of the United States?

I never really focused on that. The focus was on winning the Republican nomination and then what would happen after that, which would have been a breathtaking national campaign. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t worry about stuff until I’m actually faced with it.

Of course, you did have some experience as first lady of Indianapolis when Mr. Lugar was mayor.

I used to keep a notebook, because when I’d be down at the Safeway, people would say things like, “Oh, I didn’t want to bother your husband with this, but somebody threw a mattress in my front yard.” I was kind of Dick’s eyes and ears. I’d put it in the proper channel, and usually it got done.

You two actually had a stint in D.C. before settling in Indy, right?

When Dick was in the Navy, he worked at the Pentagon. There used to be parades down Pennsylvania Avenue for dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth. Average people could go and watch, and I would think, “I need to do this, because where will I ever get to see any of these people again?” Who’d have guessed that, years later, we’d be coming back and going to White House dinners?

You moved back to D.C. in 1976 when Mr. Lugar was first elected to the U.S. Senate. What difference do you recall?

The biggest problem was, we bought a house that was under construction, and the people here did not have the same work ethic or the same sense of caring whether or not they pleased you as they do in Indianapolis. My first nine months here, I spent almost every day waiting for the builder, or waiting for somebody to come repair something. Thirty years later, we still struggle to keep up the same house, which seems always to have something the matter with it. But we have no intention of going anyplace.

Is it tough being alone there when Mr. Lugar travels?

That’s what friends are for, and family. They fill the slots. I still bowl and play tennis. I do work for the March of Dimes, which has been my grand passion. And I’m trying to lose weight like every woman in America. So I go to Curves.

How do the two of you stay close with all the time apart?

We have a lot of Post-it notes on the kitchen cabinets. Like, “Have a good day. I’ll be thinking about you. Love, Dick.” I sometimes get up later than he does, so I’ll write one before I go to bed.

I suppose decades of marriage to a politician have given you lots of practice maintaining a long-distance relationship.

After graduating from Denison, before we were married, Dick studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and I stayed here to get a master’s in philosophy from Northwestern. Most kids today wouldn’t understand how, for the two years that Dick lived there, we never talked on the phone. There was one phone at Pembroke, the college where he lived. You had to make an appointment to use it, and it was very expensive. So we wrote letters. I know now, in the age of e-mails and instant messaging, most people wouldn’t comprehend how you could keep a romance going like that.

So you couldn’t start the wedding planning until Mr. Lugar returned from England?

Actually, we got married right after Dick got back. He was not the kind of person who was interested in picking out silver and china. I asked him, “Do you want me to wait until you come back to plan the wedding?” And he said, “Oh no, if you like it, it will be just fine.” It wasn’t high on his agenda.

What about now? Does he do his share of the household chores?

He does the trash, and I do the enlisting of people for repairs on the house.

Who balances the checkbook?

He does. I’m a philosopher, remember? I don’t do finances. I just try to stay within a budget. He’s tried to keep me on some kind of a budget for 50 years, and it doesn’t really work. But he’s good-natured about it.

Who’s your favorite philosopher?

Well, Kierkegaard is one, for all the questions he raises about existence.

What kind of dad was Mr. Lugar when your kids were growing up?

Let’s face it—there were lots of nights when he wasn’t able to be home, because he was always giving speeches and things like that. And there were things that he couldn’t always do. Dick couldn’t go to every basketball or baseball game. But he was very caring. He always gave the boys plenty of attention when he was there.

Did he change diapers?

He wasn’t the kind of guy, like the fathers of today, who changed diapers and those types of things. I did most of that stuff, but of course he pitched in when needed. You know what? If you asked most of our friends, they’d tell you none of the fathers of that day were expected to do as much child rearing as they are today. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It was just a totally different era.

How is he with the grandkids?

He’s a big hug-and-kisser kind of guy. And I’m told that even when we’re not around, the little ones run to the television and say “Grandpa!” when he’s giving a speech on C-SPAN or something. He really cares about the boys and the grandkids—and other children, too.

Is he the same man you fell in love with?

We were elected co-presidents of the student body our senior year at Denison, so we worked together. After Christmas it became apparent there was something more there than just having worked together, and so we got pinned in the spring. He was obviously a mover and shaker, and I considered myself one also. But he was also a low-gear kind of person. He was easy to work with. And for 50 years, he’s been easy to work with.

>> MORE: See our Richard Lugar feature from December 2007, “A Farewell to Arms.”

>> BY THE NUMBERS: We review his career accomplishments and bona fides here.


Photo provided by Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society

This article appeared in the September 2006 issue.