Born to Be Mild; He's Influential, Informed, and Responsible. but Do You Really Want Sam Nunn to Be President?

By Noah, Timothy | The Washington Monthly, December 1989 | Go to article overview

Born to Be Mild; He's Influential, Informed, and Responsible. but Do You Really Want Sam Nunn to Be President?


Noah, Timothy, The Washington Monthly


He's influential, informed, and responsible. But do you really want Sam Nunn to be president?

Dressed in Sunday-best pastels, the ladies of the Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs sit in a conference room of the Macon Hilton, hands folded in laps, waiting to hear from their senator, Sam Nunn. Nunn, in a beige suit and red tie, sits behind a dais decorated with daisies. His presence has created an electric sense of anticipation: One month earlier, he made headlines by engineering the rejection of John Tower, President George Bush's choice for secretary of defense. Introducing Nunn, Barbara Fallin, a longtime family friend, speaks of the growing national reputation of the senior senator from Georgia and chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "He knows more about NATO than any other member of Congress," she says proudly.

Nunn rises to a standing ovation and takes the podium. He jokes about a tongue-tied friend who introduced him on another occasion by saying Nunn had been "vitally involved in fraud, waste, and abuse." The women laugh warmly. Nunn discusses the role of women in the professions. He praises the Federation's commitment to volunteer service. "Without the willingness to serve others," he says, "a democratic society simply cannot flourish and compete in the world." The crowd is in the palm of his hand.

As he shifts to global issues, however, Nunn starts to display his usual weakness on the stump-a ten- dency to get lost in a thicket of details. "We're spending about 5 1/2, 6 percent of our gross national product on national defense," says Nunn, while "the Soviets are spending about 20 percent-18 percent to 20 percent-as much as 18 to 20 percent." There are scattered coughs in the audience. "As recently as about 20, 25 years ago-don't hold me to the exact numbers and dates here-we had at that time in the United States, we controlled about 50 percent of the world's gross national product .... Today, that's down to about 25 percent." More coughs. "As recently as about 15 years ago, the United States had something like 70 percent-we produced about 70 percent of all the new technology coming out in the world .... Now it's down today to about 20, 25 percent."

By this time, the excitement has faded to respectful drowsiness more appropriate to a Sunday school sermon than to an oration by a rising political star.

No one has ever accused Sam Nunn of being charismatic. Yet the same quality that serves him so poorly before a crowd-a compulsion to dot every i and cross every t of quantifiable fact-has earned him the highest respect on Capitol Hill. "He is the most effective politician inside the Senate that I have seen," says Sen. Albert Gore Jr., who serves with Nunn on the Armed Services Committee. Nunn's military expertise is so highly regarded that his vote frequently determines whether a president gets what he wants on defense. The Tower defeat demonstrated one application of Nunn's power. Last summer's Senate vote on the administration's defense budget, which Nunn supported, showed another. In the House of Representatives, George Bush's defense priorities got scrambled. But in the Senate, Nunn managed to pass a defense bill that reflected the administration's wishes, as well as his own.

A Democrat who describes himself as a "moderate conservative," Nunn is that rare politician who com- mands respect in both parties. In 1980 Nunn's standing among Republicans was so high that Ronald Reagan is said to have fleetingly considered him for the vice-presidential slot. Nunn says Reagan campaign officials never approached him, but he did have "some conversations with some of the Bush peo- ple"-he won't say who-about whether he wanted to be secretary of defense. (He told them he wasn't interested.)

Nunn lost some of his bipartisan luster when he launched his campaign against Tower, which resulted in a Senate vote split almost entirely along party lines. Conservative columnist Paul Gigot of The Wall Street Journal mocked Nunn's reputation as "Statesman Sam"; Senate minority leader Bob Dole, who led the pro-Tower forces on the Senate floor, coined a new word to describe Tower's op- ponents: "Nunnpartisan.

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