INDIANAPOLIS — Vice President Mike Pence sat behind President Donald Trump (Feb. 5 during the State of the Union), nodding along with either a stern glare or a happy smile to whatever Trump said.
But I was more interested in what two other Hoosiers must think about a president who stokes fear about a non-crisis at our Southern border while only exacerbating real problems in other corners of the world. He boasted about pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and about stopping a war with North Korea that had simmered only to flare due to his own bellicosity.
Sitting in the U.S. House of Representatives was Dan Coats, the former Indiana senator who now is director of national intelligence. Coats gave his own threat assessment to Congress days earlier, and it wasn’t caravans from Mexico he was worried about, but an aligned Russia and China, an ISIS foothold in Syria and a North Korea that isn’t yet giving up nuclear weapons no matter how much Trump thinks they are.
Watching on television was another former Indiana senator, Richard Lugar. His career was focused in large part on trying to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. His bipartisan success — first with Democrat Sen. Nunn of Georgia and later with Democrat Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in negotiating arms limitation treaties with Russia — made the world a safer place.
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The morning after Trump’s speech, I asked Lugar if he felt the world is, still, safer. Ever the diplomat, he said yes, citing our strong military. But he also spoke of the threat growing on Trump’s watch of another arms race.
“Very recent developments, I believe, have been unfortunate,” he said.
Yes, Russia was violating the intent of our treaties by developing a new intermediate range weapons system. But Lugar’s answer is not pulling out of the treaties we have but doing the hard work of new negotiations and verification.
“There are some in our government…who really want to begin building more nuclear weapons to contest Russia in this respect,” Lugar said. “Before we start down that trail it would be very wise for the president and President Putin to have very serious conversations about the future of nuclear weapons in the world, because otherwise if we get back into a competition of that sort again, there’s no end to the potential difficulties and horror that may occur.”
Does he think Trump and Putin, of all people, could actually do that?
“Well, I’m not optimistic for the moment because things have been moving in just the other direction,” he said.
Lugar and Nunn, at Pence’s invitation, met with Trump before his first meeting with Kim Jung-Un, offering advice and counsel. It was civil, with him and Nunn doing most of the talking.
“The president clearly thought enough of the conversation that he put it on his Twitter account,” Lugar said, seemingly without sarcasm.
But was there any sign Trump took their advice? “No.”
Now Trump is meeting again with the North Korean despot, who has not stopped his nuclear pursuits.
“I don’t deny (Trump’s) enthusiasm, and our hopes always are for his success,” Lugar said. But, he added, “he has not really had the background and sophistication in arms control, I believe, to understand all that he’s dealing with there.”
Lugar ran for president in 1996, but found little traction. I wondered, though, what a Lugar State of the Union speech would have been like. Lugar said he’d have celebrated our economy, as Trump did.
But he would have touted what immigrants have brought to our country. He would have stressed the importance of NATO. As a man who owns 600 acres of farmland in Marion County, he knows tariffs killed the soybean market last year, so he wouldn’t be applauding those. And while he, like all of us, admires the 13 individuals Trump praised during his speech — veterans, a synagogue shooting survivor, a child cancer survivor among others — Lugar said that took up about half the speech that could have focused in more detail on the challenges we face and plans to address them.
In that ’96 campaign, Lugar’s slogan was “Everything a President Should Be.”
And that, to me, is everything Trump is not.