In October 2012, at a dinner with friends, I found myself sitting next to woman who’d grown up in Russia.
Finding out I was a reporter, she demanded to know why Indiana Republicans had months earlier cast aside longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar.
She couldn’t understand why Lugar’s decades of reaching across the aisle had led to his vilification by the Tea Party in the Republican primary, ending his long political career.
“He saved my life,” she said, and the lives of millions of others.
Growing up as the Soviet Union collapsed, her childhood fears were the stuff of nightmares. The forces protecting chemical and nuclear weapons were disintegrating into chaos and corruption, and she feared every day could be her last.
That conversation came back to me this week as I listened to Lugar and his longtime Democratic ally in disarmament, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, expound on the virtues of compromise.
Lugar, 81, and Nunn, 75, were guests of the University of Indianapolis at a public event titled “Diplomacy in a Dangerous World.” Moderator Steve Inskeep, of National Public Radio, deftly guided them through a recounting of the origins of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.
Created in the early 1990s, that program has been credited with eliminating 10,000 weapons of mass destruction – including 7,600 nuclear warheads – before the disarmament agreement with Russia expired last year.
Lugar and Nunn spoke of a chilling conversation they once had with Russian officials they’d come to know. As the Cold War was ending, those officials told the senators: “You Americans must know that the security is breaking down around the nuclear weapons pointed at you.”
Lugar remembered asking: “What do you want?”
The response: “We’re going to need a lot of money.”
It was a hard sell for the men to make to their colleagues in Congress: Give aid to a longtime enemy who’d amassed enough weaponry to destroy the world several times over.