Richard Lugar, A Friend Until The End

Richard Lugar

Tony Valainis

I met Dick Lugar when we were freshmen at Shortridge High School in 1946, and we were both trying out as cub reporters for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Echo. He invited me to stop by his house one day after school, and he showed me his room, which was a model of student order—sharpened pencils neatly lined up in a row, a clear desk with a clean pad of lined paper. He was focused, and he carried himself with a sense of purpose unusual in a teenager. I told my parents over supper that night there was a boy in my class who was going to be president.

“President of your class?” my father asked.

“No—president of the United States,” I said.

He should have been, but short of that, he served as president of The Indianapolis School Board, mayor of Indianapolis, and senator from Indiana for thirty-six years, a record marked by extraordinary achievements of service to his city, his state, his country, and the world.

Lugar and I rose quickly on The Echo, both of us writing “rival” sports columns, mine on Tuesdays, and his in the Thursday edition. We started calling each other by the names of our columns—I was “Sportlite,” and he was “Shooting the Works,” which was shortened to “Shooting” in our dialogues, and later, during and after college in the letters we exchanged—until he got in the Senate and that form of address seemed inappropriate.

We came to know each other better when, as sophomores, we were chosen as delegates to a high school journalism conference in French Lick. We shared a room with twin beds and a desk, and over that weekend, he taught me to play gin rummy. In our talks at night after lights were out, we spoke of our hopes and dreams.

First, before our talks began, Dick said his prayers aloud, which shocked me—I prayed in silence, not mentioning my faith to any friends, lest I be thought “too churchy” or even “unmasculine” in the teenage boy’s world of bravado. This was one of my first lessons about Lugar—he had his principles and he stuck by them, regardless of social acceptance and the rules of adolescent machismo.  After Lugar’s prayers, we got down to the business of dreams and aspirations.

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“President of your class?” my father asked.

“No—president of the United States,” I said.

[/pullquote]“Dan, if you could be anything in high school, what would you be?”

I didn’t even have to ponder the question; I blurted out, “I’d be high scorer on the basketball team!”

“Oh Dan,” Lugar sighed, “you’re so frivolous!”

“OK,” I said, “what would you want to be?”

“President of the class, first in the class academically.”

He was not elected class president, for the same sort of reasons that later were given for his failure to attain the post I had predicted for him—president of the United States. His delivery in speaking seemed stilted, formal, the opposite of the Bill Clinton style. He couldn’t hide the fact that he was the smartest person in the room. He was the opposite of “folksy,” which was fine in my estimation—I have always felt “folksy” was often phony, and that was a charge that could never be made against Dick Lugar. He did, though, graduate as top of the class academically.

As for me, the hours of shooting basketballs at my backyard backboard and hoop through snow, rain, sleet, and hail, achieving admirable accuracy, could not make up for my flat feet that slowed my running to a turtle’s pace. I turned from running—I had failed to break the 7-minute mile—to writing about other people running, shooting baskets, tackling, pitching and hitting baseballs, pinning opponents in wrestling, flying over the pole-vault bar.

Lugar did both—he wrote his sports column, and also gamely played football; though never a star or even a starter, he plugged away at it with stolid determination. One of my favorite scenes in my mental Lugar album is the time I covered a lowly junior-varsity football game for The Echo, and Dick was playing fullback. I felt myself cringing when on one play he was given the ball and headed straight into the enemy line, a muscular wall of manual defenders, and simply hurled his body fearlessly forward, crushed after gaining a yard or two. He untangled himself from the pile, got up without a moan or mumble, and hurried back to the huddle.

I have always felt “folksy” was often phony, and that was a charge that could never be made against Dick Lugar.

Aside from our “rival sports columns”—he accused me of being too slangy, I accused him of being too florid—we competed in speaking contests, as both of us were on the debate team. In our junior year, Dick and I both entered the “I Speak for Democracy” contest. Lugar won first place in Marion County, and I came in second. The first place prize was a TV set—the first one any of us had seen! Lugar invited me and a few other classmates to his house to watch The Lone Ranger. I was disappointed in seeing the masked man on the screen, where he was not nearly as heroic-looking as he was in my imagination from listening to his deeds on the radio. Still, the TV itself was far more impressive than my second prize—a 45-rpm record player. I comforted myself with listening to Joni James singing “Let There Be Love.”

In our senior year, both Dick and I entered the competition for giving the class graduation address. The Shortridge tradition was not to select the student with the best grade average as the commencement speaker, but rather to hold a competition for the best speech, delivered to a faculty committee who named the winner. In other words, our graduation speech was not given by the smartest student, but the biggest ham. I won, hands down, and got the chance to orate before classmates and families at The Indianapolis Coliseum. That was the only time I won any competition with Lugar. It was also the only time my winning rankled him; he called me and made it clear he did not agree with the committee’s choice.

Richard Lugar’s admirable adherence to playing by the rules was not a route to popularity. As an Echo sports columnist, he wrote a story reporting that he had seen players on the basketball team smoking and drinking. Not only were the players and their student fans upset, so was Joel W. Hadley, the principal of Shortridge. For the only time in his life as a student, Lugar was called to the Principal’s Office to be reprimanded rather than praised. The Principal told him that issue of The Echo was read by the School Board and reflected badly on Shortridge. Dick was defended, however, by our beloved faculty advisor, Jean Grubb, who stood up for Lugar and freedom of the press.

Lugar’s honesty came to the fore again in one of our class’s final activities. It was Shortridge tradition that the graduation dance was put on by 30 senior boys (chosen by the previous year’s seniors) who formed the prestigious “Club Thirty.” It was our job to select the band to play, the site of the dance, set the ticket price, and sell the tickets—in brief, make all the arrangements. At our last meeting, to divide up the spoils—a minor profit divided among us—all were ready to close the meeting and go out for burgers and maybe some under-the-counter beer, when Lugar stood to say that our business wasn’t over. He explained that we needed to report our profits to the I.R.S. and pay whatever tax was required by the government. None of us were trying to do an end run around our responsibility—such an adult duty had simply not occurred to anyone. Lugar made sure it was all carried out according to the letter of the law. My immediate thought was that Dick was making sure that no future muckraking reporter would dig back into his history when he ran for president and find an illegal flaw in his high school past. He was an Eagle Scout, in character as well as achievement, and he never broke a pledge.

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Lugar said, “The President is mistaken.”

That took guts.[/pullquote]

We corresponded during college and after his years as a Rhodes Scholar, when he was working in Washington as a Navy Lieutenant and intelligence briefer for Admiral Arleigh Burke. After he returned to Indianapolis, even though I was then in New York, I followed his rise to the School Board and then mayor of the city. At the time of our 20th class reunion, I was happy to learn he had not lost his sense of humor. That was 1970, when my novel Going All The Way was published, and caused a scandal in Indianapolis. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his review of the book in Life Magazine, “Having written this book, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis. He will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.” Due to an assortment of threats on my life and limb from people who imagined they were this or that character in the book, or their girlfriend/now wife had engaged in illicit activities (‘gone all the way”) with characters who were not their future husbands. I was too chicken to return for that 20th reunion, but I asked a friend who was there if my novel was talked about. I learned that Lugar, now mayor, was the keynote speaker at the event, and someone asked if he had read Going All The Way.

“I received it,” Lugar said. “In a plain brown wrapper.”

That was the packaging thought to be appropriate in those days for sending someone a book considered “risqué.”

Six years later Lugar was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served not only with distinction, but also with achievements that The New York Times called “remarkable.” They were referring in particular to his work with Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn to create and implement the use of American funds to destroy obsolete nuclear missiles and materials in other places in the world, including the countries of the former Soviet Union.

In what stands out in my own mind in a series of what can fairly be called “Profiles in Courage” during his years in the Senate, Lugar was sent by President Reagan to monitor the 1986 elections in The Philippines. Lugar found widespread fraud and corruption in President Ferdinand Marcos’s claims of victory, and announced that Corazon Aquino was the winner. Told on national television that Reagan said Marcos was the winner, Lugar said, “The President is mistaken.”

That took guts.

A few months after I had moved back to Indianapolis at the end of 2011 (defying Vonnegut’s prediction of more than 40years before), I got an email from a Lugar staffer asking if the Senator might send me a note. Lugar was in a primary race with a Tea Party challenger, and I wrote back to Lugar’s aide giving him my new address at Lockerbie Court, and added, “Tell him I am pulling for him in the election, but keeping it under my hat—the last thing he needs is an endorsement from his Bohemian classmate.”

Lugar and I had lunch when he was in town a month or so later, and talked as comfortably as we always had for so many years.

Lugar lost his primary battle to the Tea Party challenger who won by attacking his record of “bipartisanship”—a principle he embodied that was fast going out of fashion. He later explained to The New York Times that political polarization— the opposite of bipartisanship—“deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times.”

He wrote an eloquent letter of support for a petition organized by a man I had never met (Pat Chastain) to name the park at 61st and Broadway “Dan Wakefield Park.” At the opening ceremonies for the new naming of the park, Lugar flew in from Washington and gave a friendly, funny, supportive talk. Whenever I got a review or gave a writing workshop or a speech that Lugar knew about, I heard from him. Typical was a letter from October 23, 2017 saying:

“It was exciting to read a page in The New York Times book review of Kurt Vonnegut Complete Stories”—I had co-edited and written introductions for the book—”following our visit to your home and your description of your years of effort in the editing of these stories.”

It was not just to old classmates and pals that he wrote appreciation and encouragement. My friend Ian Woollen, a therapist and writer in Bloomington, suggested to a young patient who was new in town and felt he had a “reputation problem” that he write successful people he admired for advice. The young man wrote to about 50 famous people. The only response he got was a thoughtful letter from Lugar. It was enough to turn things around for the new boy in town.

Lugar was given an award by The Indiana Pacers for his support of basketball at the halftime of a high school championship game, and he invited me and our classmate Patty McVey to come to the event, watch the game, and be there for the bestowal of his award, joining him in a skybox with food and drink. Fittingly enough, Crispus Attucks won, reviving its old glory from Oscar’s days, and Dick was delighted. He had spoken with knowledgeable appreciation of the first Attucks championship team in the documentary Something to Cheer About, produced by another Indianapolis friend, Betsy Blankenbaker.

Lugar emailed me last year to say he was coming to town for the 100th-birthday party of the man who first supported his candidacy for School Board. He would like to stop by my house that afternoon and have a cup of coffee with me. He didn’t know that I wasn’t a big coffee drinker and didn’t even have a pot to make it in. I borrowed a friend’s elegant new German coffee machine, practiced using it, and mastered the mechanics in time to serve Dick a cup of coffee. He looked at my living room mantel and said, “I see you have a Bernie sign.” I looked up at it as if to check that it was still there. “Yes,” I said. That was the extent of our political conversation.

Senator Richard Lugar and Dan Wakefield at the dedication to Dan Wakefield Park

As Dick and I approached our 87th birthdays this year, I wrote to him February 2, expressing my hope that “in the coming months I will have a chance to talk with you while we are both still standing … it would give me great pleasure to have a sort of ‘last roundup,’ nothing fancy but whatever might be convenient for you … I have no interest in discussing politics, national or local, but our own journeys … I will not attempt to tug at your heartstrings by signing myself ‘Sportlite,’ but I hope we will have at least this one more chance at ‘Shooting the Works.’”

Our lunch was scheduled for Monday, April 29. On April 19, I received an email from Nick Taylor, his longtime assistant, that the senator had to go into the hospital and they foresaw a weeks-long recovery effort before he resumed a normal schedule; they were canceling the trip to Indianapolis, stating, “the Senator was very much looking forward to visiting with you and is distraught over the idea of needing to cancel.”

I am distraught that I wanted to tell him something I didn’t have the guts to tell him for years. There was a time when I was writing a lot for GQ magazine and I got an assignment from the editor to do two major articles. The second was to be about Lugar. I told the late Art Cooper, a terrific editor, why I wanted to write about Lugar and he nodded and said, “We’ll call the piece ‘Why This Man Should be President.’” This was before Lugar had announced any intention of running; I only knew that one day he would do it, and this article might in some very miniscule way help his cause. But the editor didn’t like the first article of the two I had been commissioned to write and we lost confidence in one another. I knew he wouldn’t let me write the piece on Lugar, so it died, kaput. The fact that I once nearly made it happen means nothing, counts for nothing. I blew it. And I was going to tell him about it at the lunch we didn’t have, to show what a good friend I was, or might have been, or tried to be. As Bob Collins, the great sports editor of The Indianapolis Star, used to say, “That and a dime will get you a cup of coffee.” That was when you could still get a cup of coffee for a dime.

Richard Lugar, R.I.P.