Open Letter to Senator Richard Lugar: A Belated Salute to an Unseated Patriot

Dear Senator Lugar,

I am pretty sure you don’t remember me. We met once for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, four or five years ago. At the time, I was the executive director of the Roosevelt Campus Network, a national student progressive organization. We had met at an event celebrating Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy, and I came to your office to ask you to join our fledgling organization’s advisory board. Though you recognized that our politics were well to the left of your own, you agreed to lend your name and reputation to our efforts, believing that engaging young people in politics had value beyond ideology. I left your office feeling optimistic about our country’s leadership and with a deep respect for you personally.

In the past few months, I’ve been looking into the history of climate legislation in the last few Congresses. You were, I learned, among the small minority of Republicans who supported the climate legislation advanced by John McCain and Joe Lieberman in 2003 and 2005. Any vote across party lines on an issue as contentious as climate change is a brave act --your two consecutive votes were, in of their own, acts of political courage.

But you weren’t only crossing party lines. 94% of Indiana’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Unlike the other Republicans who voted for cap-and-trade in 2003 – Senators from Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island – you took a vote for a bill that was likely to raise electricity costs for your constituents. Your vote crossed both party and geographic lines. In a very narrow sense, Indiana is disadvantaged by cap-and-trade legislation relative to other states less dependent on coal electricity. It was this kind of short-term, defensive thinking that drove many other elected officials, including many Democrats, to vote against action on climate to protect home-state coal industries and consumer energy prices. Your vote was as brave as it was important. Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing our society and our world, and you sacrificed petty politics to try and address it. You did that which is so rare on climate change – you led.

Likewise, you have led on what is arguably the other greatest threat facing our planet: nuclear weapons. Your work on nuclear nonproliferation, especially to build the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, deserves similar recognition. 

I have never been a Senator and so I can’t be sure I would have taken the same tough votes or exercised the same leadership. I hope I would have. But I can imagine the frustration you must feel to have been driven out of office your willingness to engage with Democrats and by your commitment to pursuing good governance over party unity.

In my personal capacity, I was sorry to hear of your primary loss. Having looked more closely at your vote record, in my capacity as a citizen I am now even sorrier. I write, therefore, to salute you, Senator Lugar. To let you know that one citizen recognizes and appreciates the personal choices you made putting country over career, endangering your political longevity for the good of the polis. I hope that you feel like you made the right choices - and I hope that our other leaders will see you as an inspiration, not as a tale of caution.

My best regards,

Nate Loewentheil

A Concerned Citizen from the State of Connecticut