Lugar’s lesson: Ignorance not a shield

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the window just over the right shoulder of former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, the Washington Monument stands, straight as truth itself.

Lugar and I talk in a meeting room at the Lugar Center, which is housed in the Willard Hotel, home to much U.S. history.

Ghosts of the American past whisper in the halls. Abraham Lincoln stayed here before he took the oath of office and led us through our greatest national trial.

A Willard desk clerk once almost turned away Ulysses S. Grant when Grant came to D.C. to assume command of the Union armies because the general was dusty and bedraggled from travel and came accompanied only by his young son, not an entourage. When the clerk realized who the guest was, he offered Grant palatial accommodations. Grant, accustomed to sleeping on or near battlefields, was unimpressed.

This morning is cloudy. Grayness shrouds the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial beyond it.

The weather suits the moment in history.

In the nation’s capital, revelations about President Donald Trump’s alleged ties with Russia and possible attempts to obstruct justice fall like hammer blows. The shutdown of the federal government has ended, but the infighting has not. Protesters demanding fair treatment for the “dreamers” — those young immigrants under threat of deportation — roam through the U.S. Senate office buildings, chanting inside and out lawmakers’ offices.

The nation’s present is chaotic.

The path forward seems befogged by mist and confusion.

Lugar says little about this, at least not directly.

The six-term senator and foreign-policy sage is nothing if not courteous, respectful and reserved. He does not stoop to name-calling.

Instead, Lugar says that this president is “not a student.”

Not a student of foreign policy.

Not a student of history.

Not a student of the world or its people.

Mild as the words seem, for Lugar, this is a savage indictment.

Because Richard Lugar is and always has been a student. From his earliest days, he was the guy who always did his homework, the one who listened closely, who sought without fail to understand.

When I ask John Lugar — the former senator’s son who works in commercial real estate and also serves as executive director of the Lugar Center — what happened if he or his brothers didn’t do their homework, the younger Lugar rolls his eyes.

“Oh, that wasn’t good,” he laughs.

Homework was priority, he says.

The elder Lugar tells me how he became interested in politics and public service.

When he was an 8-year-old boy, young Richard was allowed to stay up late to listen to Hoosier Wendell Willkie’s acceptance speech at the 1940 Republican National Convention.

Willkie was an electrifying figure, dubbed “the barefoot boy of Wall Street,” a nod to both his Indiana roots and his dizzying ascent in the business world. He enchanted young Richard Lugar.

Willkie lost the election, but gave Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt the toughest election fight of FDR’s life.

I ask Lugar about Willkie’s other contribution to history — the fact that “the barefoot boy from Wall Street” led the GOP away from isolationism and “America First” as the threat of World War II approached.

Are we at a similar moment now with the rise of neo-isolationism and the resurrection of “America First” rhetoric?

The former senator purses his lips.

The world, he says, is a dangerous place because it is a complicated place.

To illustrate his point, he walks me through the challenges North Korea presents.

His analysis is detailed, exhaustive, the product of hours — years — of study.

He talks about the pressures at work, about how some can be used to bring resolution, about how others must be handled with care lest they exacerbate animosities.

The theme that runs through this maestro’s seemingly complicated performance is simple.

Ignorance is not a shield.

It is a hole in our armor, a wound waiting to happen.

I thank the senator for his time.

As I take my leave, Lugar is back at his desk, working at the stacks of briefing papers and other documents that await him, doing his homework, studying, studying, studying.

The clouds have lifted.

In the window behind Richard Lugar’s desk, I can see the Washington Monument gleaming in the sunlight, standing as straight and eternal as truth itself.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.