Richard G. Lugar, who represented Indiana in the Senate for 36 years and whose mastery of foreign affairs made him one of only a handful of senators in modern history to exercise substantial influence on the nation’s international relations, died on Sunday in Annandale, Va. He was 87.
His death was announced by the Lugar Center, which said the cause was complications of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a nervous system disorder.
Mr. Lugar, who had two stints as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had an impact on a wide range of foreign issues, but his most notable accomplishment was indisputably as the co-creator of a program to help destroy surplus stocks of nuclear weapons around the world.
The project was emblematic of his approach to legislating: It represented an ability to take a long view about complex issues, ran counter to the inclinations of many of his fellow Republicans and was built on a foundation of bipartisan cooperation. It was presented jointly with Senator Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who was chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program was based on the novel concept of providing American funds to destroy obsolete nuclear missiles and materials elsewhere in the world. At the time, the countries of the former Soviet Union said they could not afford the costs of the destruction and were not even providing sufficient resources to properly guard the weapons’ storage areas.
The idea was first proposed during the term of President George H. W. Bush, who opposed it, along with many others. It took almost a decade, but Mr. Lugar succeeded in persuading Congress, and especially skeptical fellow Republicans, of the need for such a program.
He was also Congress’s leading voice on treaties to ban or limit nuclear weapons, and his judgment on any such proposals was often crucial to whether one could be enacted.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan chose Mr. Lugar to lead an official American delegation to monitor a pivotal election in the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s longtime rule, appeared to win the vote, turning back a tide of demonstrations in favor of democracy that had forced him to hold the election. The Reagan administration was on the verge of recognizing that result.
But Mr. Lugar insisted that widespread fraud had occurred and that Corazon Aquino, the widow of an assassinated opposition politician, should have been declared the winner. He personally exhorted the president about the election irregularities he had witnessed and persuaded him to block any immediate recognition of a Marcos victory. Mrs. Aquino was eventually declared the victor.
His independence frequently annoyed many Republicans, both in Washington and Indiana, especially later in 1986, when he helped lead a successful effort in Congress to override Mr. Reagan’s veto of legislation imposing trade and economic sanctions on the white-led government of South Africa over its policies of apartheid.
Mr. Lugar has been frequently compared by historians and congressional scholars to former Senators Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Henry Jackson of Washington, all of whom had exercised outsize influence in foreign affairs.
But unlike them — and, indeed, unlike most senators — Mr. Lugar was known for his extraordinary modesty. The occasion of roll-call votes typically presents the spectacle of senators lingering on the floor to socialize. In contrast, Mr. Lugar would cast his vote quickly after entering and, waving to a senator or two, just as quickly depart.
Mr. Lugar was a critic of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But unlike Senator Fulbright’s forceful criticism of the Vietnam War, Mr. Lugar’s opposition to the Iraq conflict, both the invasion itself and the conduct of the war afterward, was tendered in more moderate terms.
Senator Lugar was briefly chairman of the Agriculture Committee, but he proved to be an unorthodox farm state senator: He sought to reduce traditional farm subsidies as part of a larger overhaul of federal agriculture policy to allow farmers greater freedom in organizing their businesses.
Richard Green Lugar was born in Indianapolis on April 4, 1932, to a farming family with generations of roots in Indiana.
His early life and career were marked by the most traditional signposts of American success. He was an Eagle Scout and president of both his Shortridge High School and Denison University senior classes. He got along so well with his college class’s co-president, Charlene Smeltzer, who was known as Char, that they married after graduating. She survives him.
He then became a Rhodes Scholar, and during his studies at Oxford, he visited the American embassy in London in 1957 to enlist in the Navy.
After his return to the United States, Mr. Lugar was commissioned a second lieutenant and became a briefer for Admiral Arleigh Burke, the chief of naval operations, who had been a hero of World War II and was renowned as a guileful player in Washington politics. Friends said that this was Mr. Lugar’s most significant exposure to geopolitical thinking, and probably the single greatest source of his fascination with foreign policy.
After a few years back in Indiana running a machine business, Mr. Lugar was elected to the Indianapolis school board. His old high school by then was 90 percent African-American, and he pushed through a plan to make it one of the nation’s first integrated magnet schools for the college-bound. Shortridge High soon became evenly divided between black and white students.
But the plan proved highly unpopular politically and was reversed in little more than a year, and in a subsequent campaign for school board president Mr. Lugar was defeated — his first electoral setback.
He rebounded, however. In 1967, at age 35, he was elected mayor of Indianapolis. In his two terms, he helped conceive and enact a plan to unify Indianapolis with surrounding Marion County in all forms of government except for the schools.
With his eyes on higher office, Mr. Lugar sought to unseat one of the state’s incumbent Democratic senators, Birch Bayh, in 1974. He lost, but two years later he succeeded in ousting Indiana’s other Democratic incumbent, Vance Hartke.
Re-elected five times, Mr. Lugar was always able to campaign as a true son of Indiana, as someone who still operated a large soybean farm there. He had no Democratic opponent in his last successful re-election race, in 2006.
But six years later he became a target for the unforgiving conservatives of his party’s Tea Party wing and was defeated in the Republican primary by Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer. It was apparent that many Republican primary voters had lost patience with Mr. Lugar’s moderate stances on issues and especially his outspoken faith in the need for cooperation with Democrats.
What was more, attention to foreign relations has traditionally brought few political dividends to senators. And in his case, he held an expansive, internationalist view of world affairs that many party conservatives came to disdain.
The narrative of the Tea Party as an effective spoiler in Republican politics but without wider appeal played out after his primary defeat. Mr. Mourdock was defeated in the general election by the Democrat Joe Donnelly, in part because of Mr. Mourdock’s statement that he opposed abortion in cases of rape, saying that any resulting pregnancies were “something that God intended to happen.”
Besides his wife, Mr. Lugar’s survivors include four sons, Mark, Robert, John and David; a sister, Anne (Lugar) Johnson; 13 grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.
After his defeat, Mr. Lugar sat down with family and longtime aides to figure out what to do with the remainder of his life. Dan Diller, a Lugar speechwriter for many years, said that Mr. Lugar had made it immediately plain that he would not become a lobbyist, the path of many ex-lawmakers.
Out of those discussions came the idea for the Lugar Center, a Washington think tank. In the ensuing years, the Lugar Center sponsored studies of the issues he had dealt with for so long as a senator: world hunger, education and nuclear proliferation.
Mr. Lugar had been among the most scholarly and courtly of lawmakers, but those characteristics perhaps contributed to his reputation as an unremarkable orator. In “Richard G. Lugar: Statesman of the Senate” (2012), an otherwise highly admiring biography, John T. Shaw, a journalist, wrote that while Mr. Lugar had never been uncomfortable in addressing groups, he was nevertheless “a wooden speaker who is not always adept at gauging his audience and ascertaining the level of detail they are able or willing to absorb.”
An exception may have been in 2008, when he accepted an award for ethics in government. He spoke then with passion about his belief in the need for compromise and bipartisanship. At a time when the Senate was becoming increasingly polarized along party and ideological lines, he argued that senators had a duty to seek consensus across such boundaries — to avoid unnecessary inflammatory rhetoric and accept that those of the other party also love their country.
Bipartisanship, he said, was not simply moderation or willingness to reach compromises but the only sensible way to govern over the long term. The problem with heavy reliance on opposing the other party, he said, was “whatever is won today through division is usually lost tomorrow.”
“The relationships that are destroyed and the ill will that is created make subsequent achievements that much more difficult,” he said. Polarization, he added, “deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times.”