Richard G. Lugar: Nixon’s Favorite Mayor

“A warm Hoosier welcome on a rather cold day.”

That’s how President Richard Nixon described his reception in Indianapolis on February 5th, 1970. Awaiting his arrival on the tarmac, Governor Edgar Whitcomb and Mayor Richard Lugar received the President and his federal entourage. This was the first presidential visit conducted by Nixon since his inauguration in 1969 and Indianapolis was chosen as their destination due to the new Republican leadership under Mayor Lugar. After exchanging pleasantries and traveling to City Hall, Nixon and Lugar spoke to the crowd of approximately 1,000 Hoosiers before convening for their scheduled conference on urban affairs. During the conference, President Nixon convened with nine Indiana mayors to discuss problems faced by city leadership and the federal government’s role. At 4:30 PM, President Nixon departed Indianapolis to visit Chicago. While brief, President Nixon’s visit to Indianapolis greatly influenced both Lugar’s political future and the city of Indianapolis as a whole.

President Nixon and Mayor Lugar greeting one another, 1970, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives 

After Nixon’s visit, Richard Lugar would experience a meteoric rise in the political sphere, easily winning his mayoral re-election in 1972 and earning a U.S. Senate seat in 1976. Lugar served one of Indiana’s senators for 32 years, garnering a reputation as a foreign policy expert and renowned statesman. He is best known for co-authoring the acclaimed Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which led to the dismantling of thousands of Cold-War era weapons in previous USSR territory and a Nobel Peace Prize Nomination. In 2013, President Barack Obama named Lugar as a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient stating:

 “His legacy, though, is the thousands of missiles and bombers, and warheads that no longer threaten us because of his extraordinary work. And our nation and our world are safer because of this statesman.” – President Barack Obama, 2013

In examining Lugar’s towering legacy, one must ask, how does a mayor of a landlocked city in the Midwest become the leading statesman in foreign policy for over 30 years?

The answer to that question can be traced back to February 5th, 1970, and a warm handshake on a rather cold day. Lugar transformed an otherwise short and symbolic visit with Nixon into a key political moment, forging an unprecedented relationship between a city mayor and the sitting president. In a Washington Post article, Peter Braestrup aptly dubbed the young Lugar as “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor.” The name stuck, and Lugar leveraged his new title to enter national politics and foreign affairs. While Lugar’s association as “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor” was problematic immediately after the Watergate scandal, his affiliation with the President was overall more beneficial than detrimental to his political career. Ultimately Nixon’s relationship with Lugar was the catalyst for Lugar’s remarkable career in foreign affairs, elevating both Lugar and Indianapolis to national and global prominence.

Nixon’s presidency is remembered, for better or worse, as one of the most consequential administrations in American history. Globally, Nixon found success in foreign affairs, revolutionizing the Cold War by pursuing rapprochement with China. Domestically, Nixon championed New Federalism which facilitated the transfer of power from the federal government to the state level via federal block grants. Conservatives believed this policy would curb the bloated bureaucratic system. However, Democrats believed that New Federalism was an underhanded attempt to dismantle President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Frustrated by a resistant Congress, Nixon sought to prove that his philosophy of decentralization worked. In 1970, Nixon found a prime example of New Federalism in Indianapolis, lead by its newly minted Republican mayor, Richard G. Lugar.

Before Lugar’s election, Indianapolis Democrats had enjoyed a sixteen-year long monopoly on the mayoral office. However, Lugar and his campaign manager, Keith Bulen, capitalized on a rift forming within the Democratic party and, running a tight grassroots campaign, won the 1967 mayoral election. As mayor, Lugar successfully implemented Unigov, a controversial piece of legislation that folded several counties into the city of Indianapolis, increasing the city’s population by 300,000 citizens overnight. Notably, the demographic incorporated into Marion County was mainly white, conservative, suburbanites whose vote solidified the Republican party’s dominance in Indianapolis. Unigov also established Indianapolis as a leader in urban policy, successful city consolidation, and effective “home rule,” a not-so-subtle nod to Nixonian New Federalism.

A caricature of Mayor Lugar ascending into the sky on a rocket titled “Uni-Gov, ” 1971, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives

By 1970, President Nixon was embroiled in the Vietnam War and public criticism of his inability to withdraw, a promise he had made on the campaign trail, mounted every day. As the war dragged on, Nixon became increasingly sequestered in the White House, failing to make a presidential visit outside of Washington D.C. for the entirety of 1969. A deeply insecure man, Nixon abhorred the idea of a presidential visit being marred by coverage of anti-war protestors and personally embarrassing him. His administration urged him to leave D.C. and eventually identified Indianapolis as a city where he would receive an enthusiastic welcome and, in turn, positive media coverage. Better yet, Mayor Lugar’s Unigov legislation offered a thriving example of New Federalism and decentralized government. The presidential visit was confirmed in January of 1970 and Mayor Lugar began preparing the local Republican party to receive the president.

The presidential visit was a rousing success with both the media and public. The Indiana GOP had extensively planned this visit, inviting positive coverage of the event and a gathering a crowd of over 1,000 people for Nixon and Lugar’s speeches alone. President Nixon was reportedly delighted by the large reception and in good humor traveling to the conference. The Urban Affairs Conference was more symbolic than practical, cementing Nixon’s commitment to New Federalist Policy. This commitment would later reach Indianapolis by way of generous block grants and federal funding. The visit drew national attention to Lugar’s successes as mayor and the media began connecting Lugar with Nixon in their headlines, eventually bestowing upon Lugar the title of “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor.”

Lugar introduces President Nixon with First Lady Pat Nixon and Governor Edgar Whitcomb prominently featured, 1970, courtesy of Indiana University Bloomington: The Richard G. Lugar Senatorial Papers

More importantly, Nixon’s visit to Indianapolis unintentionally precipitated Senator Lugar’s career as a diplomat, statesman, and foreign affairs expert. In WYFI’s documentary on Lugar, the senator reminisces on how he was invited to his first NATO conference by President Nixon. After delivering their speeches in front of City Hall, Lugar and Nixon were heading towards the conference on urban affairs and conversing during the elevator ride.

Upon passing the 25th floor, Nixon pivoted towards Lugar and said:

“Dick, I want you to go with Moynihan…to Brussels to represent the United States at a NATO conference on cities.” – President Nixon as remembered by Richard Lugar

Lugar accepted the President’s invitation. Seemingly a reward for the successful presidential visit, Lugar’s attendance Brussels NATO conference precipitated his transformation from a local, Midwestern politician to a U.S. Senator and global tour de force. During the conference, Lugar attended several diplomatic meetings and, on the second day, proposed that Indianapolis host another NATO conference in May of 1971. Talking points for this Hoosier hosted conference included urban growth, with Indianapolis being the case study, municipal affairs, and urban problems. The proposal was accepted, and Lugar was able to successfully blend his previous experience with urban affairs with his new interests in foreign policy. Both NATO conferences provided the mayor with vital connections and foreign policy experience that Lugar later leveraged to maneuver into the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

A year after hosting the Indianapolis NATO conference, Mayor Lugar was invited to speak at the 1972 RNC where he was introduced by Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan, in his charismatic oratory style, lauded Lugar as:

“A respected spokesman for and practitioner of the very best in workable new approaches to the urban challenge… he has represented the President not only across this country but also within the NATO Community.”- President Ronald Reagan, 1972

Lugar’s rise to national prominence experienced a major setback on August 8th, 1974, when Nixon, unable to escape the Watergate Scandal, became the first and only sitting president to resign. Suddenly the title “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor,” was a curse rather than a blessing. Despite efforts to separate himself from the disgraced president, Lugar lost the 1974 Senatorial election to Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh. However, Lugar quickly bounced back in 1976’s election and began his federal career as Indiana’s longest-serving state senator.

Ultimately, the lasting impact of Lugar’s relationship with Nixon as his “favorite mayor” was Lugar’s rapid rise in politics and critical access to foreign policy early in his career. Without Nixon’s 1972 presidential visit, Lugar would not have been able to attend the NATO conference in Brussels, host a similar conference in Indianapolis, and most likely would not have been invited to speak at the 1972 RNC. These cumulative events were significantly more impactful than Lugar’s singular 1974 election loss. Without Nixon’s mentorship, Lugar’s senatorial career would have been vastly different, and his legislation may have been limited to areas more in line with the expertise of a midwestern politician such as agriculture. Instead, Lugar was able to capitalize on the diplomatic opportunities Nixon presented him and pursue an illustrious career in foreign affairs. After losing the primary election in 2012, Lugar would continue to make speaking appearances until his passing on April 28th, 2019. The Lugar Center preserves Senator Lugar’s preeminent legacy by continuing his policies regarding nuclear weapon nonproliferation, global food security, and bipartisan governance.

Richard Nixon Shaking Hands with Mayor Lugar, unknown date, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives

In January of 1994, during the 25th anniversary of Nixon’s presidential inauguration, Senator Lugar and President Nixon’s paths crossed one final time. It was another chilly day in Washington D.C., and the weather resembled that of the two statesman’s first encounter nearly 25 years prior. In those two and a half decades much had changed: the Cold War had ended, Bill Clinton was President, and the Republican Party was undergoing a major political transformation and becoming increasingly conservative. This stood in stark contrast to Nixon’s promotion of desegregation and the founding of the EPA. It was during this time that the political topography started shifting under Lugar’s feet and Lugar, once known as a solid conservative, began being known as a bipartisan negotiator or even a moderate. This new reputation would later be weaponized against him in the 2012 primary election. Regardless of the political present and future, Lugar and Nixon were gathered to recount presidential history. Lugar proclaimed to the gathered crowd, “Our prayers today are for the continuing strength and activity of President Richard Nixon,” whom he then referred to as his “foreign policy teacher and counselor.” After the celebration, Nixon, who was now in his 80’s, privately pulled Lugar aside and confided in him saying:

“You know, you really were my favorite mayor.”

Former State Legislators Agree: Politics Has Changed

Indiana General Assembly, no date, courtesy of the Indiana State Library.

For many former Indiana lawmakers, the legislative and technological world feels quite different from the one in which they began their political careers. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that statistically the U.S. is the only democratic nation in the world where social trust has seen a major decline, suggesting political polarization is the major driving force.[1] Luckily, history provides us with perspective in these contentious times, reminding us of an age when things were once different and that there is always hope for change.

According to former legislators of the Indiana General Assembly (IGA), politicians have generally collaborated well and operated in an atmosphere where, despite political disagreements, most worked congenially across party lines. This is not to say that political polarization is as tense as it appears at the federal level, but Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI) interviews indicate that bipartisanship is harder in Indiana than it once was. As ILOHI’s oral historian, I found myself hearing over and over again from legislators who began their careers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that state politics have changed, that the current political climate is less collegial. This belief was echoed by former legislators of both major political parties.

Rep. Choice Edwards (R), “History of the IBLC,” accessed indianahousedemocrats.org.

When asking former Republican legislators about their impressions of bipartisan cooperation during their service compared to today, I was given the following responses. Former Republican Rep. Ned Lamkin, who served in the House of Representatives from 1967 to 1982 and was crucial in creating Unigov legislation (which merged Marion County and the City of Indianapolis), stated: “ bipartisan groups would go to lunch together every day . . . so we had really good . . . collegial relationships with one another unlike it is today . . . we really did say ‘only 10% of this is political.’” Lamkin’s African American colleague, Representative Choice Edwards, served during the 1969 session and helped pass Unigov into law. In an ILOHI interview, Edwards recounted his experience in the IGA, saying “So it went from very serious kinds of things to jovial . . . you know I believe to quote the philosopher Mencius if you ain’t laughing you ain’t living. So, I believe in . . . trying to ease tensions with laughter.”

Edwards’ predecessor, Republican Van Smith, who served in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1961 and was chairman of former Vice President Mike Pence’s successful 2012 gubernatorial campaign, echoed these same thoughts. He reflected:

There’s not deep bipartisan political respect that there once was. I don’t know I would have as much enjoyment in the legislature as I had before. I don’t know if I would have as much fun running for public office as I had before. There is this tendency to really build extreme vitriol positions against personalities, rather than have a good discussion of issues. It saddens me, because it’s a magnification in both parties, it’s a magnification of the bitterness, the attractiveness of being bitter. . . I am a staunch Christian and it just ain’t good.

Rep. Charlie Brown (left), accessed NWI Times.

Former Democratic legislators, like Rep. Charlie Brown, who served from 1982 to 2018, too observed increasing political polarization. Brown contended:

It’s just over the last six years, that what you see at the federal level was at the local level here. It used to be that we’d fuss and fight on the floor or in committee, but then go out and have a drink or have dinner together. That changed drastically over the last six or eight years. It was a total separation and isolation of the parties as it is at the federal level. I don’t know what brought that on. We just do not have that camaraderie any longer.

Democrat Lindel Hume, who served in the House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982 and the Senate from 1982 to 2014, echoed this, stating

It’s a tale of two legislatures . . . Whether you were Democrat or Republican you had friends on both sides of the aisle and you would kid around together . . . A much better relationship across party lines and one of the reasons I decided to retire from the legislature was that it just wasn’t the same.

African American teacher and Democratic legislator Earline Rogers served in the House from 1983 to 1990 and Senate from 1990 to 2016. She noted that despite differing races or parties, her statehouse colleagues respected and related to one another, adding that the public probably wouldn’t “recognize the camaraderie that’s there.” She also recalled that while caring for loved ones diagnosed with cancer, she and Republican colleague Tom Wyss, “went through something together. . . there’s a bond that political parties just can’t break up.”

The Herald (Jasper, IN), February 23, 1984, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

While the legislators agreed that polarization had intensified, most did not attribute it to a specific source. One major factor exists today that did not in the early careers of former legislators: the internet. The Pew Research Center reported in early 2020 the results of a survey regarding how trustworthy Democrats and Republicans found 30 different news sources. The results found that Democrats trusted 22 of the sources and Republicans distrusted 20 of the sources, showing a deep divide.[2] The Wall Street Journal noted a few months back that mathematicians studying the role of social media in political polarization are seeing a disturbing trend, where social media sites appear designed to highlight the most contentious and extreme political posts.[3]

According to Facing History & Ourselves, online platforms “use algorithms to expose viewers to increasingly extreme content, which can lead them to fringe political views without their realizing it. . . . Spending time in a political echo-chamber can make it easier for negative feelings toward members of the other political party to develop.”[4] Information has become inherently political and it is harder than ever to discuss it, because so many have come to only trust information that fulfills their political biases. As a result, it is like throwing gasoline on a fire by reinforcing the idea that the other “side” is too extreme or untrustworthy to even interact with. In addition to “media bubbles,” Facing History cites “in-group bias,” or tribalism, and changing election policies like campaign finance reform and gerrymandering for increasing political polarization.

Indiana General Assembly, ca. 1948-1953, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The 2021 session indicated that the party divide among Indiana legislators isn’t likely to narrow any time soon, given the recent tension in the Assembly over a proposed bill regarding a South Bend school district. When Democrats belonging to the Black Legislative Caucus expressed concerns that the  bill would lead to racial segregation in South Bend, it was reported that a group of white Republican legislators booed and heckled them.[5] The conflict moved from the House floor to outside the chambers, and there, according to WFYI, a white male lawmaker had a confrontation with a black female legislator.[6] Democrats called for implicit bias training after the incident. While some legislators pushed back against this proposal, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that the conflict exposed serious issues in the IGA.

Perhaps, if there is one thing we can learn from former legislators, it is that things don’t have to be this way, that political echo chambers can be dismantled. The Association of Retired Members of the Indiana General Assembly, a bipartisan group founded in 2016, is hoping to restore civility and bipartisanship among legislators. An Indy Star op-ed noted the group is “joined in fellowship of our common legislative and political experiences as well as our respect for the legislative process.”[7] Every two years, it awards legislators who demonstrate courtesy and respect for other members, are willing to find common ground, demonstrate self-discipline, and appreciate the rights of others. The op-ed’s author stated, and ILOHI interviewees confirmed, “Legislators are human and can be passionate. They can also be civil and work together for the good of our state.”

Sources:

[1] Kevin Vallier, “Why Are Americans So Distrustful of Each Other?,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed WSJ.com.

[2] Mark Jurkowitz, Amy Mitchell, Elisa Shearer and Mason Walker, “U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided,” accessed Pew Research Center.

[3] Christopher Mims, “Why Social Media Is So Good At Polarizing Us,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed Wall Street Journal.

[4] “Explainer: Political Polarization in the United States,” accessed Facing History & Ourselves.

[5] Brandon Smith, “Tensions Flare as Some Republicans Boo, Heckle Black Democrats on House Floor,” WBAA, February 19, 2021, accessed wbaa.org.

[6] Brandon Smith, “‘Nothing Was Normal’ About 2021 Legislative Session Amid COVID-19 Pandemic,” WFYI, April 26, 2021, accessed wfyi.org.

[7] Op-Ed, “Bipartisanship Group of Retired Indiana Lawmakers Encourages Civility,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 2021, accessed IndyStar.com.