Let us now praise two almost-famous men who served in the Senate for a combined total of 74 years and died recently within three weeks of each other. Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, and Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, both took a bipartisan approach to legislating and left their country a stronger, safer place.
Today, lawmakers who dare to reach across the aisle are branded as heretics and threatened with primary challenges. So it’s important to remember a time when working with political rivals to solve problems was not just possible, but popular.
Lugar was compact and colorless, known for his early-morning runs around Capitol Hill, even in lousy weather. A political ally, William Ruckelshaus, once joked about him, “Dick has maintained that childhood capability of walking into an empty room and blending right in.”
Hollings was tall and lanky with a crackling wit that sometimes got him in trouble. When a political opponent challenged him to take a drug test, Hollings fired back, “I’ll take a drug test if you’ll take an IQ test.” The New York Times once wrote, “Providence has blessed him with an appearance so striking that rank strangers assume he must be important.”
In many ways, however, their political lives took similar paths. Both were military veterans. Hollings won a Bronze Star as an artillery officer in World War II. Lugar was too young for the war, but time as an intelligence officer briefing the Navy’s top brass deepened his interest in defense and foreign policy.
Hollings was elected governor of South Carolina at age 36. Lugar became mayor of Indianapolis at 35. Both lost their first tries for the Senate, and ran for president with abysmal results. And both represented vanishing political breeds that are sorely missed in Congress today.
Hollings was a pragmatic Southern Democrat in a state that was rapidly turning Republican, and after he retired in 2004, he was replaced by hard-edged conservative Jim DeMint. Lugar, a dedicated internationalist, was defeated in a GOP primary in 2012 by a doctrinaire right-winger, Richard Mourdock.
But the most important trait they shared was a capacity to change, grow and apply their new knowledge to practical legislative solutions. In 1986, Lugar led 31 Republicans in joining 47 Democrats to override President Reagan’s veto of a bill imposing economic sanctions on South Africa. Lugar, reported the Los Angeles Times, “was credited by the liberals with masterminding the president’s defeat.”
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The Republican’s most enduring success was working with Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, to enact legislation that financed the dismantling of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. The Washington Post editorialized, “the program ranks as among the most successful congressional foreign policy initiatives in a generation.”
One of Lugar’s proteges was a young first-term Democrat from Illinois, Barack Obama, who said of his mentor: “In Dick, I saw someone who wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat first, but a problem-solver — an example of the impact a public servant can make by eschewing partisan divisiveness to instead focus on common ground.”
Hollings grew up in the segregated South, but as governor, he presided over the peaceful integration of Clemson University. “This General Assembly,” he told state lawmakers, “must make clear South Carolina’s choice: a government of laws rather than a government of men.”
As a senator in the late 1960s, he toured poor areas of his state and became a strong supporter of federal programs like food stamps. “There is hunger in South Carolina,” he told a Senate committee. “I know as a public servant I am late to the problem, (but) we’ve got work to do in our own backyard ... I’d rather clean it up than cover it up.”
In the 1980s, he worked with Republicans Phil Gramm of Texas and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire to enact the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill, which placed strict limits on congressional expenditures. It worked for a time, but eventually, clever congressional budget-busters found ways around the restrictions.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of Hollings’ career came in 2015, when he proposed that a federal courthouse named in his honor be renamed for Judge J. Waties Waring, an early and isolated voice for racial equality. “I just got the money for the building, he made history in it,” Hollings explained.
The senator was being too modest. Fritz Hollings and Dick Lugar both made history. And today’s lawmakers can learn a lot from their lives of honor and courage.