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Lugar wasn't just an 'out-of-touch' centrist; he was 80

May 09, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Defeated Sen. Richard Lugar greets his supporters.
Defeated Sen. Richard Lugar greets his supporters. (Darron Cummings / Associated…)

The easy – but still important – thing to say about Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar’s involuntary retirement is that it deprives the Senate of a long-serving, studious and open-to-compromise wise man.

In an eloquent statement after his defeat by conservative State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, Lugar echoed retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in decrying partisan extremism and polarization. If that attitude prevails in American politics,” he warned, “our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years.”

But there seems to be more to Lugar’s defeat than impatience with his bipartisan approach. As my colleague Mark Barabak noted, Lugar was regarded by constituents as an aloof Washington insider who had lost touch with Hoosierdom. (He sold his Indianapolis home in 1977.) And he was, and is, old. Lugar turned 80 last month, and would have been 86 at the end of another term. Lugar alluded to the age issue in his statement, insisting that his health was “excellent.”

A glance at any day’s obituary section suggests that 80 is indeed the new 70 – at least as far as life expectancy is concerned. But longevity in Congress is another question. When Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter ran for the Democratic nomination for a sixth term (forsaking his former Republican Party), he also was 80. He was defeated in the 2010 primary by Joe Sestak, who was 58 at the time. (Sestak lost in the general election to 48-year-old Pat Toomey.)

Like Lugar, Specter might simply have worn out his welcome. And if successful, he wouldn’t have been the first octogenarian senator to be returned to Washington. The late Robert Byrd of West Virginia was 88 when he was elected to his ninth term in 2006. Still, some voters, including older voters, wonder if anyone should still be legislating in his 80s. Does that make them ageist bigots? I don’t think so.


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