Lugar’s Loss Follows ‘Curse’ of Senate’s Foreign Policy Committee


From Oct. 1, 1986, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is seen after a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting about Nicaragua with Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I. Photo by Cynthia Johnson//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Call it the curse of the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Richard Lugar, who has served as chairman or ranking Republican on Foreign Relations since 1985, was following in a hoary tradition when toppled in Tuesday’s Indiana GOP primary (according to an Associated Press projection). He is the fifth top Foreign Relations Committee member over the last 60 years to lose his seat.

As a Senate historian noted, the men (and they have all been men) who assume that august title are treated with great deference in Washington — many embassy invitations, overseas travel and morsels of classified information from the president and top U.S. officials — but their constituents wind up wondering if their senator is spending too much time worrying about problems abroad and not enough about highways and public works projects at home.

In relatively recent history, the toxic trend surfaced in 1952 when Sen. Tom Connally fell under the Eisenhower landslide that swept even then-Democratic Texas. He lost to a Democratic governor who had endorsed Ike’s election. Four years later, as racial politics were boiling after the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision, Sen. Walter George was toppled by Herman Talmadge.

Probably the most famous chairman to fall was J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who had become a hero of the anti-Vietnam War movement with televised hearings in 1965 that ventilated arguments against the widening conflict to a national audience. In 1974, after American troops had left the war zone, Fulbright lost a Democratic primary to Gov. Dale Bumpers.

Six years later, it was the turn of Idaho’s Frank Church, another prominent anti-war senator and best remembered for his investigations of the CIA. He was among nine Democrats swept aside in the Reagan landslide.

And the next to tumble, six years later, was Republican Charles Percy of Illinois, ousted in part by a major effort of pro-Israeli groups who thought the senator might be too sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Perhaps one way to avoid the curse is to run from Rhode Island.

Two Democrats there managed to hold the title and not lose their seats.

Democratic Sen. Theodore Green retired in 1960 at age 93. Green served most of his 24 Senate years on the committee, his last two as chairman. Rhode Island’s major airport is named for him. His successor, Claiborne Pell, a former foreign service officer fluent in three European languages, was committee chairman from 1987 to 1994 and retired from the Senate two years later. But he is probably best known as the author of the Pell grants program of financial aid for college students. There’s a bridge to Newport named for him.

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