WHILE many observers are saying that President Reagan was fortunate in the peaceful shift of government in the Philippines, there seems to be one clear-cut hero among the Americans involved: Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Clearly it was Senator Lugar, more than anyone else, who pulled the President from his support of Ferdinand Marcos and pushed him behind Corazon Aquino. Mr. Reagan had been hearing from his advisers that Mrs. Aquino had become the popular leader and that Mr. Marcos's victory was fraudulent. But Mr. Lugar, with his on-the-scene report on the election, is said to have tipped the President toward Aquino, a course he had been resisting.
Just who is Richard Lugar? The public knew Charles Percy, Lugar's predecessor as committee chairman, who had burst onto the political scene as a likely presidential candidate. Before Mr. Percy there was Frank Church, also a presidential possibility at one time. Before Mr. Church was William Fulbright, a well-known national figure for years.
Lugar, a fifth-generation Hoosier, was born in 1932 in Indianapolis. He was an Eagle Scout and graduated first in his class in high school in Indianapolis and at Denison University in Ohio. At Denison, Lugar served as co-president of the student body with his future wife, Charlene Smeltzer.
He then went on to become a Rhodes scholar, a top aide to Adm. Arleigh Burke, and mayor of Indianapolis. As mayor, Lugar was credited with bringing metropolitan government to Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County and setting the city on a course of strong economic growth.
I first met Mr. Lugar back in his mayoral days, when he was just beginning to reach out for bigger things. But despite being so clearly solid, intelligent, persuasive, and likable, he was something less than an exciting personality.
That's his problem. His unassuming way is attractive. And his low-key approach helps him in working with those who differ with him as he, characteristically, seeks a consensus. But he certainly isn't colorful.
This tendency for Lugar to remain the relatively unidentifiable public figure keeps him from being widely mentioned as a potential president. It's too bad. There's no better qualified person in the Republican Party today. His name should be on the list with Vice-President George Bush, Jack Kemp, Robert and Elizabeth Dole, and Howard Baker.
Lugar's ambitions undoubtedly include the presidency, although he continues to deny any such aspiration. And as co-chairman of the US observer team in the Philippines, Lugar got the sort of visibility a potential presidential candidate would have to relish.
The senator was clearly enjoying this limelight the other morning when, over breakfast, he recounted his role as an observer and intermediary in the Philippine episode.
No, he said, he had no way of explaining the President's press-conference remark that he thought there was election fraud in both camps.
But he said the President had to be credited with reassessing the evidence and then shaping a US position that contributed mightily to the peaceful change of rule in Manila.
Then the senator said the lesson learned in the Philippines was that ``probably our strongest suit in foreign policy is to steadily, and nevertheless with some degree of consistency, keep pressing our friends as well as our non-friends to have elections.''
Specifically, Lugar continued, he believed that the United States should offer to drop its support of the ``contras'' fighting the Nicaraguan government if the Sandinistas hold a free election ``like the Philippines.''
So saying, the senator was moving into the making of foreign policy with a thought-provoking suggestion, something that had not been stressed within the administration.
Thus, he is sounding ``presidential,'' showing the kind of foreign-affairs credentials a candidate should have. He's also writing a book on foreign affairs, after only a short stint as Foreign Relations Committee chairman (since late '84). That's another persuasive sign he has his eyes on the White House.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.