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Associated Press
President Barack Obama awards former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar the Presidential Medal of Freedom Wednesday during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

Lugar receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

WASHINGTON -- The efforts of former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana to dismantle nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union were "absolutely critical in making us safer," President Barack Obama said Wednesday, not long before presenting Lugar with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Lugar was among 16 people, including former President Bill Clinton and broadcaster Oprah Winfrey, to be awarded the country's highest civilian honor during a late-morning ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

Obama said about Lugar:

“A proud Hoosier, Dick Lugar has served America for more than half a century, from a young Navy lieutenant to a respected leader in the United States Senate. I’ll always be thankful to Dick for taking me -- a new, junior senator -- under his wing, including travels together to review some of his visionary work, the destruction of Cold War arsenals in the former Soviet Union -- something that doesn’t get a lot of public notice, but was absolutely critical to making us safer in the wake of the Cold War.

“Now, I should say, traveling with Dick you get close to unexploded landmines, mortar shells, test tubes filled with anthrax and the plague. His legacy, though, is the thousands of missiles and bombers and submarines and warheads that no longer threaten us because of his extraordinary work. And our nation and our world are safer because of this statesman. And in a time of unrelenting partisanship, Dick Lugar’s decency, his commitment to bipartisan problem-solving, stand as a model of what public service ought to be."

As Obama strapped the medal on his one-time colleague in the Senate, an announcer said that Lugar, 81, "put country above party and self to forge bipartisan consensus throughout his time in the Senate."

Lugar, a Republican, and then Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia, co-authored the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which has deactivated thousands of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the former Soviet Union since being enacted in 1992.

Lugar, an Indianapolis native who served 36 years in the Senate before he was unseated in last year’s Indiana GOP primary election, is apparently just the second Hoosier among more than 500 people who have received the Medal of Freedom. Brian Lamb, a Lafayette native who founded the government and politics TV network C-SPAN, received the medal in 2007.

The medal is in its 50th year and was begun by President John F. Kennedy. Wednesday’s presentation came two days before the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.

“This award was very special because it really commemorated the work that we have done as we try to eliminate the threat to our country by weapons of mass destruction,” Lugar told reporters after the ceremony. “The president was very generous in his citation…mentioning his own experience” with Lugar in Russia and former Soviet states.

Lugar at the time was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Obama, then a freshman senator, was a member of the panel. The Democratic president has described Lugar as a mentor on foreign policy.

“We had adventures together that were significant for both of us and led to arms control legislation that we co-sponsored,” Lugar said.

For more on this story, see Thursday’s print edition of The Journal Gazette or visit after 3 a.m. Thursday.