Few senators have waited in line so long to take back a committee chairmanship, been so well prepared for it, or assumed it at such a pivotal moment.
Studious, unflashy, and methodical, Richard Lugar of Indiana is taking the reins of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a time when the move toward war in Iraq appears almost inexorable - and he appears ready to use that position to critique the Bush administration's foreign policy.
Tuesday, his committee holds hearings on the administration's plans for a post-Hussein Iraq. While not an overt opponent of US military action, Mr. Lugar says the president has failed to talk straight with Americans about the long-term commitment involved.
"There hasn't been an on-the-record presentation for the American people," Lugar said Thursday. "We need to stake out what the parameters of success in Iraq will be: Are Americans going to invest time, money, and a lot of diplomacy in building democratic institutions, ensuring a functioning economy, peace between [Iraqi] Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds?"
It's trademark Lugar. A policy wonk who devours books - footnotes and appendices included - he has a softspoken sagacity on global affairs that seemed boring or off-point to some in the booming and secure 1990s. Today, while not everyone agrees with his views, his voice counts on both sides of the aisle and may be one of the few in Congress to penetrate a White House that is not inclined to take notes on Capitol Hill.
Lugar considers himself a team player and enjoys cordial relations with President Bush, but as other presidents have found, he won't be bullied off the pulpit - not on issues he knows deeply.
A former Rhodes Scholar, Lugar served as a Naval intelligence officer, a school board member and mayor of Indianapolis, where he gained the tag line of "Nixon's favorite mayor," for cutting back on federal programs. After a failed bid for the Senate in 1974, he was elected in 1976, and, by wide margins, ever since. After nearly half a century in public life, he still runs 15 miles a week around the Mall or with high school cross-country teams back in Indiana.
While many committees in Congress are still getting their phone lists straight, Senator Lugar has set the Foreign Relations panel on an exhausting pace: In his first two weeks as chairman, the committee voted for a new treaty with Russia and held high-profile hearings on Iraq, North Korea, and the State Department. After Tuesday's Iraq hearing, it takes up the reconstruction of Afghanistan on Wednesday.
Nor are these events just for show. Even though wartime Congresses are usually eclipsed by the commander in chief, Lugar expects to make this committee a serious counterpoint to the White House on all the big foreign-policy issues of the day. And he wants to push the administration to put as much focus on the nation's diplomatic capacity as it does its military.
It's his second shot at taking the helm on foreign policy in the Senate. From 1985-6, Lugar chaired the Foreign Relations Committee for two eventful years during the Reagan administration. Then, he waited out 16 years in the shadow of archconservative Jesse Helms, who invoked seniority to bump Lugar out of the top GOP spot on the committee in 1987, then conspicuously marginalized his No. 2. While other senior Republicans fled the panel, Lugar stayed on.
With or without a gavel, he has already made a mark on some of the biggest foreign policy issues of the past quarter century. As chairman in February 1986, he persuaded President Reagan to force the ouster of Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos, after observing electoral fraud he compared to "a dull roar."
Months later, he handed Reagan the first big foreign-policy defeat of his administration by leading the effort to override a presidential veto of sanctions against South Africa over apartheid.
That defection was viewed by many in the Reagan White House as disloyal, and may explain why then Vice President Bush passed over Lugar in favor of the junior senator from Indiana, Dan Quayle, as his running mate in 1988. Lugar's own presidential bid in 1996 faded early. Too "colorless," commentators said.
As foreign policy dropped off the political map for most lawmakers in the 1990s, Lugar pressed on with legislation that colleagues now call visionary to channel $400 million to the former Soviet Union to safeguard or destroy that nation's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and their component materials.
In Tuesday's hearing, Lugar aims to encourage the Bush administration to lay out its plans for post-Hussein Iraq. While some Defense Department hawks talk of a quick, surgical strike, Lugar is convinced that a much longer commitment will be required, and that the American public needs to be prepared for it.
Similarly, Lugar and ranking Democrat Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware aim to focus the administration's attention on new threats from North Korea and faltering reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. "The question Lugar is asking is absolutely the right one: To what extent is the US willing to engage and pay the costs in the longer term for reconstruction efforts in Iraq?" says Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "If you look at our record in Afghanistan," he adds, "it doesn't lead one to be too optimistic."