Minutes after Richard Lugar finished his lecture here at Franklin College, someone in the audience asked him a question.
Is it too late to get you to run for president?
Lugar, 84, chuckled as laughter and applause danced across the room.
“In a word, yes,” the former six-term U.S. senator from Indiana said.
And a few groans of disappointment.
Lugar just had wrapped up an address that combined dispassionate analysis of our current disheartening political climate with an impassioned cry for renewed standards of civility and statesmanship.
He talked about how divided we Americans have become:
“A fascinating Washington Post opinion poll of residents of Virginia, conducted a month ago, found that 60 percent of respondents who planned to vote for Hillary Clinton did not know of a single family member or close friend who planned to vote for Donald Trump. Similarly, 54 percent of Trump voters did not have a family member or close friend who planned to vote for Clinton. This cultural disconnect is all the more notable in that Virginia is considered a purple swing state that can go either direction in a presidential election. So even as the state itself runs close to 50-50 in its voting behavior, the two political camps are deeply segregated.”
After establishing that we now live in a place that more closely resembles a set of warring tribes than it does a functioning nation, Lugar talked about the coarsening of American life and discourse. He said we Americans have come to view each other as hostile combatants rather than fellow citizens.
In doing so, we divorce ourselves not just from a sense of shared belonging to a great nation, but from reality.
“We can debate the cultural and psychological reasons for this, but it is symptomatic of the willingness of Americans to disparage political rivals in terms that are harsher and less connected to the truth than those that are acceptable in other areas of life,” Lugar said.
Lugar said this disconnect has produced a government – and a country – that cannot function.
“The American political system clearly is failing to address obvious problems for which broad based solutions are well understood, such as immigration reform and the viability of entitlement programs. On numerous issues, we are failing even to have a civil conversation,” Lugar said.
If anything, that’s an understatement.
At the time Lugar delivered his lecture, we Americans were in the midst of national arguments about missing emails, demeaning more than half the country’s population and whether one presidential candidate should jail another.
Meanwhile, the middle class is disappearing, more and more of our children are growing up in poverty and we live in a world of increasingly varied dangers.
Lugar called for an old-fashioned solution.
Some people call it statesmanship. Some call it leadership.
He said that candidates for office should make a kind of pledge to themselves:
“I affirm that members of the other party love our country and are people of good will, and I will avoid portraying them as unpatriotic or disloyal.
“I believe that members of the opposing party can contribute to good policy. I will explore opportunities to work with them and will attempt to include them in early deliberations on my initiatives. I recognize that bipartisan support from elected officials broadens public acceptance of new laws and policies and improves the chances that they will be successfully implemented.
“Even as I participate in partisan debates and work on behalf of my party, my first motivation will be a careful reflection on what is good for the country. I will avoid legislative and policy actions that have no purpose other than to score partisan political points.
“Although I will advance arguments consistent with my own political philosophy, I will study issues in depth with an open mind. I will consider multiple points of view and avoid an exclusive reliance on my party’s positions and talking points.
“I will maintain my civility, even when others around me do not. I will measure my words, to avoid inflammatory rhetoric that often is destructive to the political process and national unity.”
Not surprising in this distressed era, is it, that there are people who want Dick Lugar to run for president?