The past couple of weeks have not been easy for Richard Lugar. Indiana's 72-year-old senator-for-life is the chairman of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that capacity, it has been Lugar's job to shepherd President George Bush's nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, through the confirmation process.
After Lugar expresses his reservations about the world according to George W. Bush, he invariably winds up doing whatever the president wants. Congressional Quarterly rates him Bush's biggest fan in the Senate at 99.2 percent.
This should not have been a problem. Republicans outnumber Democrats on the committee by 10-8. And, at least here in Indiana, Lugar has a reputation for being a sage conciliator. One would have thought that he was the perfect guy to massage away the kinks created by Bolton's rash of past utterances about the institution the president has chosen him to serve. Things like: "The [United Nations] secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
What's more, although the folks here in Indiana like to think of Lugar as an independent thinker, a man of integrity who can't be bought, he is, in fact, nothing if not a good soldier for his party and his party's president.
Over the years, Lugar has managed to win support from moderates and even some liberals thanks to a personal style that manages to express a seemingly thoughtful concern about issues from, say, drilling for oil in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge to going to war in Iraq. No sooner do the potentates in his party express their latest radical scheme than St. Richard appears in public to soften the rhetoric and put a seemingly rational spin on things.
Reporters then fall all over themselves speculating that, perhaps, Lugar is actually opposing Bush, Inc. They did this before the last election when Lugar called Iraq reconstruction efforts "incompetent." They did it again two weeks ago when Lugar opened the Bolton hearings by scolding Bolton for his penchant for self-expression, saying, "In the diplomatic world, neither bluntness nor rhetorical sensitivity is a virtue in itself."
But after Lugar expresses his reservations about the world according to George W. Bush, he invariably winds up doing whatever the president wants.
Congressional Quarterly rates him Bush's biggest fan in the Senate at 99.2 percent. He has voted with Bush 251 times in 253 chances. No wonder the National Journal ranks him among the Senate's most conservative members.
So Lugar's high school principal-like performance following the testimony of Carl Ford, the retired chief of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), was chilling but not surprising. Ford, a life-long Republican, came forward two weeks ago to testify against Bolton. This was televised on C-Span. It was clear that Carl Ford, despite his loyalty to his party, has a conscience that has been grievously insulted by John Bolton. He felt a need to speak out and share his professional assessment of this guy. In essence, Ford said that Bolton went further than any political appointee he had ever seen to try and twist intelligence to fit the White House agenda.
Ford put himself on the line to tell this story. When he was done, Richard Lugar smiled. Lugar kept smiling as he went on to say that Ford's story was interesting but that it didn't matter. Bolton, Lugar said, was the president's choice. He was Secretary of State Rice's choice. They were entitled to their choice and, whatever Bolton had done in the past, Lugar was sure he'd behave himself henceforth and not do or say anything without permission from his betters. He said he looked forward to Bolton's confirmation. The sweat was still shining on Ford's brow, but he made a point of going up and shaking Lugar's hand anyway.
Much has been made of Bolton's abusive management style. This obscures a larger point. Leading up to the Iraq war, Carl Ford's INR was right in its intelligence assessments about Iraq when the CIA was wrong. The INR downplayed Saddam's firepower and predicted a difficult postwar transition. But the INR was ignored and ostracized because what it said didn't fit the White House plan. Bolton was a White House enforcer. Now the White House wants to put him on the world stage at the United Nations where he will probably be called on to present the U.S. case for policy having to do with countries like Iran and North Korea. Given his record - and after what happened to Colin Powell - will anyone, friend or foe, believe him?
Last week, Richard Lugar was smiling again, but things were not going according to plan. George Voinovich, the Republican senator from Ohio, was behaving the way Hoosiers like to think Lugar behaves, actually acting on principle and saying that what he heard about Bolton troubled him and that he thought more investigation was warranted. Lugar was vexed, but he had to go along - the votes for Bolton were disappearing.
As I watched our senior senator's mandarin smile, I wondered what frustrated him more, this runaway process, or that his commander-in-chief had stuck him with having to promote such a flawed and dismal candidate. All those votes. That unwavering support. And Richard Lugar is left dusting John Bolton's shoulders and holding his bag. The price of loyalty is high indeed.