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Opinion What today’s hyperpartisans could learn from Richard Lugar’s life of service

President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) at the White House on Nov. 20, 2013. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

IN AUTUMN 1991, after seeing the chaos in the imploding Soviet Union, a nuclear superpower, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, returned from Moscow and proposed legislation to deal with the crisis. Along with another leading Democrat, Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, he got nowhere. The nation’s political mood was turning inward, and some Republicans said the United States should not give the Soviet Union a dime. Reluctantly, Mr. Nunn pulled his bill from the Senate on Nov. 13, lamenting that “we are going to sleep” about the dangers.

Then Mr. Nunn invited Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) to a lunch at his office with visiting Soviet officials, who warned that, in a “worst-case” scenario, nuclear weapons could be caught up in a devastating power struggle. A Harvard physicist, Ashton B. Carter, reinforced the warning, saying in another meeting that “never before has a nuclear power disintegrated.” Mr. Lugar, alarmed, on Nov. 20 announced his support for immediate action to meet a “strategic danger.” His decision galvanized Congress, and soon legislation was approved to begin dealing with the Cold War’s legacy of thousands of nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction.

What became known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program ranks as among the most successful congressional foreign policy initiatives in a generation. It would not have happened but for Mr. Lugar, who died Sunday at 87. Mr. Lugar was an accomplished politician, but he did not see every day in the Senate as another round of partisan jockeying. Rather, he wanted to solve the big problems of the era. His was a voice of reason and bipartisanship during six terms in the Senate, including two stints as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. In today’s environment of “weaponizing” every issue to advance party and ideology, Mr. Lugar’s example should remind all that public service ought to mean rising above personal consideration in the interests of the country and the world.

In 1991, Mr. Lugar disagreed with those who said the Soviet Union should be left in “free fall” to cope with its own problems. In the years after the Nunn-Lugar legislation was passed, he doggedly stayed with the program, visiting remote factories and missile sites as weapons were destroyed. Once he took a young Senate colleague to a facility in Ukraine, walking down dark corridors, stepping over puddles and finally coming across women at a worktable with piles of old artillery shells, taking them apart. “By hand,” recalled Barack Obama, the younger senator. “Slowly. Carefully. One by one.” It took decades to build up those weapons, and it was not a sure thing that they would be taken apart without grave consequences. Thanks to Mr. Lugar’s example and commitment, in the twilight of the Cold War, the world was made safer.

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