Hoosier Hall of Fame: Home and Abroad with Richard Lugar and Lee Hamilton

With nearly 70 years of experience on Capitol Hill between them—as well as leadership on the Senate and House Committees on Foreign Affairs—Richard Lugar and Lee Hamilton modeled an Indiana approach to government for the nation and the world: even-keeled, pragmatic, bipartisan, and wise.
This article is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s 2016 Indiana Bicentennial coverage, which includes our list of the 200 Hoosier Hall of Fame picks, designated throughout in bold or highlighted. For more on this celebration of the state’s first two centuries, click here.

To East Coast elites, diplomats, and think-tank fellows, Richard Lugar and Lee Hamilton must seem like outliers. How could such towering figures in U.S. foreign policy hail from a farm state where folks are more concerned about the height of the corn than the height of international intrigue? And how did Representative Hamilton, a Democrat, and Senator Lugar, a Republican, manage to get along so well for so long?

But to hear Hamilton and Lugar tell the story, it was in fact a Hoosier ethos—understated and steady—that fueled the bipartisan buddies’ success in reshaping American diplomacy over the better part of the last four decades. “You don’t find the kind of egocentric figures you often find in politics, I think, from other parts of the country, in Indiana,” Hamilton says of the duo’s low-key approach to statecraft and governing.

Between Lugar’s diplomatic missions to Russia to help deactivate some 13,000 nuclear warheads, and Hamilton’s investigations into covert Iranian arms transactions, the two men literally had a hand in saving the world. And the congressional record is but a chapter in their respective careers: In the 1960s and ’70s, Lugar’s signature policy achievement as mayor of Indianapolis—Unigov—set the stage for the city’s future economic growth, and starting in 2002, Hamilton co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, tasked with conducting a definitive investigation and assessment of the deadly 2001 terror attacks. Cool-handed and sober-minded, they both personified Hoosier ideals through all of it.

Now retired from politics, Lugar is president of the Lugar Center in Washington, D.C., and Hamilton serves as director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University in Bloomington. In an exclusive joint interview at IU’s School of Global and International Studies, the friends and former statesmen sat down to talk about their legacies—but not, of course, before taking a few minutes to catch up on crops and the weather. (“We’ve had a very dry spell,” Hamilton said. “Very dry,” Lugar agreed.)

When did you two first meet each other?

LUGAR: I had heard of Lee because his brother Dick Hamilton was pastor of our Methodist church. I didn’t see Lee right off the bat, but nevertheless, we were familiar with the Hamilton family.

HAMILTON: I remember that. I think the first time I met Dick was when he was at St. Luke’s Church. He was a prominent parishioner in the church that my brother served as minister. I was elected to Congress, and then Dick was elected mayor soon thereafter. What was the year?

LUGAR: It was 1967.

HAMILTON: ’67. I was elected in ’64, began serving in ’65, and then Dick became mayor.

Now here you are, all these decades later, two preeminent figures in U.S. international relations, despite coming from a landlocked agricultural state. How did that happen?

HAMILTON: In my case, I went to Congress and asked to be put on the Public Works Committee. They didn’t have a slot for me, so they said, “How would you like to try the Foreign Affairs Committee for a few years?” I said, “Okay.”

LUGAR: I came from a family that was involved with the invention of food machinery. My grandfather on the maternal side manufactured biscuit and cracker machinery. The elements of success there were exports. This I found when I came back from military service with my brother. I volunteered before I left England for the United States Navy, and served as an intelligence briefer ultimately for Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, going in each morning, reading secrets of secrets at midnight, briefing the admirals about what was happening in the world, in our foreign policy, our military policy. These were all background elements that led me to be very interested in the rest of the world and at the time that I came to the Senate.

HAMILTON: I’ll take exception to your question. There’s always a premise in that kind of a question that suggests that it’s surprising to have two people from Indiana interested in foreign affairs. I found that the Indiana business community was very keenly aware of foreign economic policy. Likewise, the Indiana farmers. I reject the idea that Hoosiers are somehow backwards on foreign-policy questions.

“There is a Midwestern calmness, a stability of outlook, very well exemplified by Dick [Lugar] and many, many others, that goes over well in Washington.”

Is there a Hoosier character trait that helped your careers?

HAMILTON: I think many Hoosiers have admirable qualities—lack of pretense, down- to-earthness. These are all generalizations. You can get exceptions, obviously. I do think there is a Midwestern calmness, a stability of outlook, very well exemplified by Dick and many, many others, that goes over well in Washington and is appreciated.

Speaking of generalizations, in a recently publicized 2010 e-mail, Hillary Clinton referred to Indiana’s capital as “basketball-crazed Indianoplace.” Did those comments bother you—Congressman Hamilton, as a former star basketball player, and Senator Lugar, as former mayor of Indianapolis?

HAMILTON: That picture’s wrong. “Indianoplace?” My goodness. Indiana has quite a stature, I think, in the Midwest and in the country. Are we basketball-crazed? She’s probably right about that, but I look upon that as a plus, not a minus. I think it’s an offhanded comment. I don’t put much weight on it. Did I take some offense at it? Mildly.

LUGAR: I was sensitive because that was a comment that was made by, as I recall, John Gunther, a travel writer, a while back, during the time that I was on the school board in Indianapolis and thinking about running for mayor. Other people were saying in those days, “Indianoplace,” referring to Indianapolis. Forgive the extra sensitivity. We, I think, displaced that notion.

When you come back to Indianapolis and see the development—is that something you envisioned when you were mayor?

LUGAR: At the time I was mayor in 1968, the last hotel in Indianapolis was being torn down. That was nothing. Now, there are $4 billion dollars’ worth of income coming in from tourism and hotels. Seventy-five thousand jobs largely attributed to all of this. None of us could have anticipated all of that.

Are you concerned that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by the state legislature in 2015, jeopardized that?

LUGAR: I think the Legislature made a mistake. But I was delighted immediately; the business, sports leadership, all sorts of leaders came to the fore and said, “That’s not Indianapolis. We’re not going to stand for that type of discrimination.” State government made the mistake. The solution came forward from local government and people who really knew the fiber of the city.

Favorite memories of serving together on the Indiana delegation over four decades?

HAMILTON: I never once had any member of the Indiana delegation challenge me on any project that I thought, and others thought, was good for the state. The delegation had its differences, for sure, and some members were more institutionalists than others, but when it came to the state, they were pretty solid and supportive trying to move the state forward.

LUGAR: I think one important factor that I always cherished was the fact that Lee took leadership in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. I had the opportunity to take leadership on the Senate side, and this led us to be in conference committees together, attempting to work out, literally, two different bills or a variety of different issues, and I cherished those opportunities because I knew Lee was absolutely solid. We might be in disagreement, but we were going to come out with a conclusion that was best for our state and best for our country.

What kind of state do you think Indiana will be in another 200 years?

HAMILTON: Dick is a farmer, and I was talking to some farmers out in the field several months ago. One of the farmers had his son driving a tractor. He looked out and said, “Lee, in another 10 or 15 years, no farmer will be driving a tractor in Indiana.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “It’s all going to be done by robots, by global positioning, and the tractors will be completely managed outside the field itself. The plow blade will go up or down depending on the quality of soil and so forth.” He may be right, he may be wrong, I don’t know. But I got to thinking, and I said to myself, What’s the future of Indiana in agriculture if we don’t have farmers on the tractor? We need people thinking about what the big developments are going to be.

LUGAR: A great deal of innovation is going to occur, whether it’s farmers not using tractors—or we may be using robots for all sorts of things, as a matter of fact, including agriculture. I think this is a very exciting time, and we’re in a very exciting place right here in the heart of Indiana.