(Dec. 31, 1925-Jan. 4, 1999). Lawyer, politician, and loyal Indiana University alumnus, above all L. Keith Bulen was an artful politician. Born and raised in Pendleton, Indiana, Bulen enlisted in the Army Air Corps following his graduation from high school in 1944. He served as a military policeman during the occupation of Japan and, from there, earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from Indiana University in Bloomington.

L. Keith Bulen watching as Matthew Welsh signs a 1963 Civil Rights Bill (SB131).
Credit: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society

One of the last of the Indiana political bosses, Bulen masterminded the ambitious 1966 reorganization of Marion County Republican politics as the head of the Republican Action Committee. Challenging the traditional Republican apparatus, which many believed had become ossified, the Action Committee seized power during the 1966 primary election by challenging every open seat from precinct committeeman to county prosecutor.

Bulen brought discipline and flair to Marion County Republican politics during the 1960s and 1970s. The success of this effort helped to fundamentally rebuild the Republican Party in Marion County, ushering in a period of rebirth for a city that was desperately in search of an image. In this position, he forged a close political alliance with his counterpart in Allen County, home to Fort Wayne. This big city alliance helped Bulen control Republican politics throughout Indiana. He used this, in turn, to establish a tight relationship with the Richard Nixon administration. Bulen would count future head of the Environmental Protection Agency William D. Ruckelshaus and Indianapolis mayors Richard G. Lugar, William H. Hudnut Iii, as well as Indiana governor Mitch Daniels as protégés.

A stickler for details, clear political messaging, and public image, Bulen helped recruit waves of ambitious talent to the Republican Party. Separating the functions of campaigning from governing, the Marion County Republican organization was also inclusive for its time: Bulen actively recruited women and African Americans to party positions at a time when the national Republican Party was distancing itself from some of these constituencies.

A two-time member of the Indiana House, Bulen also fashioned a career as a lawyer who could get things done, heading a firm with longtime partner Charles Castor. An ostentatious dresser and enigmatic public figure, Bulen had a passion for horse racing as well as night life, all of which helped make him a ripe target for an Indianapolis Star investigation of the Indianapolis police department, Bulen’s law practice, and the city prosecutor’s office starting in 1974 (see Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department).

Although Bulen never was charged, the subsequent federal investigation soured his relationship with mayors Lugar and Hudnut and triggered a political hiatus that Bulen undertook until the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980. Heading all efforts for the future president in the eastern states during the 1980 campaign, Bulen had helped deliver Indiana’s primary votes for Reagan when he challenged sitting president Gerald Ford for the 1976 nomination. Rewarded for his service with a spot negotiating with Canada as a Commissioner of the International Joint Commission, Bulen ended his political career as he had started it, serving in the Indiana General Assembly.

Hailed by many as the shrewdest political operative they had ever known, Bulen took great pride in his political accomplishments. Upon his death, admirers established the L. Keith Bulen Symposium on America Politics at Iupui in 1999 to honor his legacy.

Revised March 2021
 

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