In September 2005, two U.S. senators walked into a Soviet-era weapons factory in Donetsk, Ukraine. The elder of the two, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, was such a familiar face in the world of international disarmament that he was waved past security at even top-secret Russian nuclear weapons facilities, according to a Chicago Tribune reporter who accompanied the lawmakers' weeklong tour of the remnants of Cold War arsenals in the former Soviet Union. But his traveling companion, a Democrat 29 years his junior and not even a full year into his first term, was in much less practiced terrain. "All of the workers have masks on," Barack Obama asked Lugar. "Why don't we?"
The white-haired Lugar, august enough to have briefed Dwight Eisenhower as a young Navy officer, was a shrewd choice of a mentor for Obama, then a rising star with presidential prospects but little international experience. Lugar had devoted his career to working on such unglamorous but significant issues as the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, passed by Congress in 1992, which reduced the swollen American and Soviet nuclear arsenals and kept dangerous materials from ending up in the hands of terrorists. Lugar's measured approach, which prompted Time to name him in 2006 as one of America's 10 best senators, necessarily involved crossing the aisle: "Even while you remain a strong advocate for your personal worldview, as President you must maximize bipartisan support and frequently seek bipartisan consensus on foreign policy issues," he cautioned in his 1988 book Letters to the Next President. "Lugar still refers to this chapter as a basic primer to the domestic politics of foreign policy," Lugar aide Andy Fisher told me via email.
This kind of above-politics deal-making on matters of global importance was once the hallmark of a whole caste of Republican policymakers, the so-called "wise men": avatars of the establishment who always maintained that foreign affairs is a lofty sphere to be left untainted by partisan bickering. So Lugar, who was enthusiastic about his apprentice as well, did not object when, during the 2008 presidential debates, Obama repeatedly invoked his name. Obama also aired advertisements in Indiana stating that Lugar belonged to a small group that has "shaped my ideas and will be surrounding me in the White House." The message was clear: Obama was anything but a radical and would compensate for his foreign-policy inexperience by seeking the counsel of elder statesmen. When Obama ran into Republican opposition in his efforts to get New START -- which continued nuclear arms-control reductions with Moscow -- ratified late last year, Lugar worked with his fellow nonproliferationists across the aisle to move it forward. The treaty passed and relations with Moscow improved.
But the same willingness to compromise and work with members of the opposition -- be they Russians or Democrats -- that made Lugar a venerated figure in the Senate has marked him for destruction by some in his own party. Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, incensed by Lugar's failure to repudiate the 2008 Obama advertisements and his support for the Supreme Court nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, formally launched the insurrection in February, announcing his Tea Party-backed primary campaign against Lugar: "It is bipartisanship," he said, "that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy."