From time to time the political landscape shifts in such a way that an aperture flicks open, revealing with some certainty which issues will dominate the decades ahead, and which people will dominate those issues.

One of the issues, of course, is national defense, a subject that relates not only to national security, but to the shape the American economy will take. Who will dominate defense? In Congress, at least, the future can be easily associated with a name: for the next 25 years or more, military debate likely will revolve around a sharp-minded Democratic senator from Georgia named Sam Nunn.

Nunn came to the Senate in 1972 at age 34 to fill the seat of the late Richard Russell, who from his position as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee helped run the U.S. military fora generation. One of the men Russell shared authority with was Carl Vinson, long-time chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Vinson, also a Georgian, was Sam Nunn’s great-uncle.

So Nunn naturally gravitated toward the Armed Services Committee. He is 24 years younger than the next in seniority on the committee, but within a few years, if the Senate turns Democratic again, he will probably become chairman. John Stennis, committee chairman for 12 years until the Republican takeover of the Senate, is 81 years old; Henry Jackson has other chairmanship choices and is in danger of losing his seat; Howard Cannon is the underdog this fall; Harry Byrd is retiring. When Nunn does make it, and the odds heavily favor it, his youth and impregnable Senate seat mean he is likely to run the committee well into the 21st century.

One reason this matters so much is that Nunn is genuinely interested in breaking through the stale defense debates of recent years and rethinking the issue. Do we really need 15 aircraft-carrier task forces? Do we really need to project American power into every nook and cranny of the globe? What are this country’s military aims? Which can we pay for? Those seem like basic enough questions, but they have never been asked much except by those, like the military services, with unshakable interests in the answers. Being from Georgia, which receives about $5 billion all told from the Pentagon each year, Nunn shares many of those interests. Nonetheless, he wants to start the process. “This administration needs a strategy, a sense of priority,” Nunn says, adding that earlier administrations didn’t have these things either.

When a senator of Nunn’s stature and future position sounds willing even to consider questioning the emperor’s clothes, it’s cause for some relief on the part of those who despair of ever changing the dreary context of the defense debate. Aides to other senators, who like nothing better than to sit around assessing the competition, are impressed by that quality in Nunn, and by Nunn’s likability and capacity for hard work. So are reporters and “military reformers,” two other groups that are hard to please. He is widely considered to be among the one or two senators best informed on defense issues.

Within defense, Nunn has developed subspecialties, among them manpower and personnel matters, which account for 60 percent of the Pentagon budget. In 1974 Stennis appointed Nunn chairman of a new subcommittee on that subject, and for six years he used the assignment to project his own view of the way the military should change. Nunn came to believe, for instance, that the military included too many generals and admirals more, in fact, than during all of World War II. Over the repeated even desperate— objections of senior military officers, Nunn finally prevailed in 1978 in enacting a modest six-percent reduction. Today, after several more of what Nunn’s defense aide, Arnold Punaro, calls “Iwo-Jima-like battles,” there are 100 fewer such officers.

This willingness on Nunn’s part to go head-on against the Pentagon has been growing in recent years. In 1981 he enraged Pentagon brass by making public a study put together by a Department of Defense civilian named Chuck Spinney that took issue with the premise behind the military’s reliance on expensive and highly complex weaponry. Nunn says he doesn’t agree with everything in the controversial Spinney report, but he felt it necessary to air critical views publicly—the aim, even if the Pentagon didn’t appreciate it, being a better defense in the long run.

Similarly, last November Nunn successfully pushed an amendment through the Senate requiring that Congress be alerted every time there is a cost overrun of 15 percent or more on a major weapon system. The Department of Defense was adamantly opposed; so was the Pentagon’s most powerful supporter on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator John Tower, now chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Tower eventually voted for the unanimously passed measure “you can’t vote against motherhood,” he said at the time but Senate staff members say it was only because Nunn maneuvered the chairman into a position where he couldn’t publicly press the Pentagon’s case. Like the Spinney case, the cost-overrun amendment suggests that when he puts his mind to it, Sam Nunn can be a highly effective and imaginative friend of a sensible defense policy.

This skepticism about the Pentagon is unusual for someone of Nunn’s background, and not only because he comes from a part of the country known for its reverence for the military. In terms of his career, Nunn was also an unlikely critic. Before reaching the Senate, he had but one year’s experience as a staff aide to Carl Vinson (who has an aircraft carrier named after him because he never said no to the U.S. Navy in his entire career), a few years as a small-town attorney, some unremarkable service in the Georgia state legislature, and precious little else in the way of preparation. “Sam had no pre-Senate experience that would have habituated him to the skepticism that one should have for big, bureaucratic institutions, says Jeffrey Record, who served for four years as Nunn’s aide on defense issues. “He came to Washington believing that what was put out in Pentagon press releases was really true, that duty, honor, country’ were really lived by… [and] that military men were by nature superior to other bureaucrats.”

Record attributes the change in Nunn to several major influences. First, in the mid-1970s, Nunn met Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth, a salty soldier from the old school. According to Record, Hollingsworth, then commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, didn’t have much respect for the “cookie-pushing” officers he believed were ruining the military. As he and Nunn grew closer (in 1977, they traveled together to Europe to assess NATO), the senator came around to the Hollingsworth view, slowly beginning to resent the ethic in the military services that so often seems to place pay, benefits, and other creature comforts ahead of establishing an effective, well-disciplined fighting machine.

Record believes a second, more important influence on Nunn’s thinking was his experience with the All-Volunteer Force, which the senator repeatedly criticized in his subcommittee as poorly manned (too many high school drop-outs who flunk skills tests) and overly reliant on hard economic times to meet recruiting goals. “When the Army says the AVF is wonderful and you know it isn’t, then you begin to suspect that, hell, if they lie about this, then maybe they’ll lie about other things too,” Record says.

Then came the West Point cheating scandals, where the Army went before Nunn’s subcommittee and tried to minimize the inadequacies of cadet training. And finally Desert One, the disastrous Iranian hostage rescue mission. Aides say Nunn was deeply shaken by how so ill-conceived a plan could have met with such approval by so many high-ranking officials.

Take It From Ernie

So through hard work and an open mind, Sam Nunn has avoided turning into another John Tower, and the American people can be thankful for that. But Nunn’s advances should not obscure the fact that he remains in many ways the product of his background a background that makes it difficult for Nunn to act as skeptical as his questioning might suggest. When combined with an unshakable respect for the military services characteristic of his region and upbringing, and with a personal nature that one former aide says is “trusting—willing to accept people at face value,” Nunn’s weak feel for the bureaucratic culture becomes a serious handicap.

Thus it was, for instance, discouraging to hear Nunn say that the purpose of his impressive cost overrun amendment was, in his mind, “not to alert Sam Nunn so that 1 can run down and try to cancel the Bradley Fighting Vehicle [a new armored personnel carrier Nunn has criticized for poor design and cost overruns] but to alert the managers of the Department of Defense so they can take responsibility” (his emphasis). The reason these managers can be trusted to do so, he adds, is that they are “acting in good faith.”

If you still wonder what’s wrong with trust and respect and belief in “men of good faith,” look at the domestic side of the budget. By believing that HEW or H U D or other agency officials they faced were acting in the sincere interest of the country, congressmen have fallen into the habit over the years of granting the wish of nearly every bureaucrat who testified he really and truly needed more money for his program. Conservatives have quite justifiably blamed liberals for that trait, and liberals have quite justifiably replied that conservatives rarely apply their skepticism about big government to the Pentagon.

Unfortunately, even when they do scrutinize the bureaucracy, few members of Congress, of any persuasion, have the ability to go beyond locating the buried bodies to the more critical matter of how they are buried—how the truth gets squashed.

The best illustration of how it happens is also the most familiar—the famous case of A. Ernest Fitzgerald, the Department of Defense analyst who testified in the late 1960s about the billiondollar cost overrun on the Lockheed C-5A transport, at that time the largest overrun on any military project ever. For those whose attitude toward Fitzgerald has been colored by the interminable litigation of recent years, it is useful to recall that the only reason he originally was fired was that he told the truth—not to the Soviet Union, but to the U.S. Congress. Given that the first harassment of Fitzgerald had taken place during the Johnson administration, one might have expected Richard Nixon to seize the opportunity to embarrass his predecessor by publicly decorating Fitzgerald as a hero for fighting waste in LBJ’s Pentagon. But the feeling within the executive branch against telling the truth to Congress runs so strong that Nixon came under intense pressure from his own people to make sure the whistle-blower was forced out.

If Sam Nunn had a better understanding of the bureaucracy, he might know what was really happening among the men of “good faith” whom he trusts to build less expensive weapons—the pats on the back when an official returns to the office after a successful day of jousting on the Hill. “They didn’t lay a glove on you,” the happy coworkers are inclined to chime in on these occasions, which is, of course, another way of saying that the person testifying was able to get through the hearing without providing any facts or relevant details about the problems of his program. Nunn has seen enough of these witnesses trying to wriggle out from under his tough cross-examination to know that they are not exactly scurrying back to the Pentagon to “take responsibility” for eliminating expensive and dubious weapons.

A Choice Not An Echo

Because Nunn is still a bit confused in this matter of when not to trust people—because he still itches, against all experience, to give the benefit of the doubt to men in uniform—his positions have been characterized by a hesitant incrementalist approach. For all of his efforts, Nunn can’t help coming off as a senator whose reputation is better earned than it is used, whose skepticism never quite comes to a conclusion, even if that conclusion is something he feels very strongly about.

For instance, Nunn has been one of the most active and insightful critics of the All-Volunteer Force but still has not introduced legislation calling for a draft or national service. He talks about it a lot, he says he wants a bill, but he has put off acting on it, according to an aide, until a “consensus” develops. Who will develop that consensus if not Nunn? Nobody knows.

Nunn points with pride to his record on manpower issues—eliminating some generals and admirals, preventing last-minute promotions designed only to allow higher pensions. But on the big manpower questions, he has ducked. You didn’t see Sam Nunn fighting the military’s controversial 20-year retirement rule, which allows many officers to retire, collect a half-pay pension, take another government job, and retire and collect another government pension.

The unwillingness to pursue his instincts is even clearer on the weapons side. Nunn, along with many naval strategists, wants a larger Navy. In a recent analysis he explained how that goal is unaffordable given the Navy’s penchant for large ships. This has not, however, led him to the obvious point extending from the analysis— namely that the Reagan administration’s plan to build large AEGIS cruisers at $1.2 billion dollars each should be scrapped in favor of greater numbers of smaller, less expensive boats.

Another example of this trait that has especially annoyed some defense critics involves the B-1 bomber, which Nunn supported in 1977 but now opposes. By waiting until the last minute to announce his opposition, Nunn missed any chance to affect the debate, and the B-1 was approved.

Like the cautiousness of most senators, Nunn’s has its roots both at home and in his perception of the Senate as an institution. The first of those is straightforward enough, though Nunn is perhaps too conscious of the voting power of conservative Georgians. One former aide recalls, for instance, that in 1975 Nunn believed he had ruined his Senate career when he voted to extend the Voting Rights Act. In 1978 his support of the Panama Canal treaties generated angry New Right epithets (“We Used to Have a Panama Canal. Now We Have Nunn.”) and lots of nervousness, but he was reelected with better than 80 percent of the vote in both the primary and general election, the highest of any Democrat in the country that year.

The caution that grows out of his strategy for effectiveness in the Senate is ultimately more damaging. In an institution of colossal egos, Nunn knows his colleagues resent those who try to hog the limelight on the floor and in the press. And he worries about spreading himself too thin—”spinning my wheels in an area I’m going to lose in.” But the effect is sometimes that same superficiality he strives so hard to avoid. “Every time I raise a question I don’t have time to carry it to its logical conclusion,” he says by way of excusing his lack of boldness. “If I did I’d have to stop raising the questions.”

Except when a weapons issue directly affects his state, as in his impassioned support of Lockheed’s C-5B against Boeing’s 747 in the recent airlift debate, Nunn makes a policy of avoiding the role of crusader. “They had a group of liberal Democrats just after the Vietnam war and each senator picked out one weapon system and made it his cause. All they did in the military field was take on that weapon system for five years. It didn’t make any difference whether the mission had changed or the means had changed or whatever, they were going after it. I don’t think that’s productive.”

And what if the weapon really deserves to be killed, and can be argued against without the senator looking obnoxious or “liberal”? Well, unfortunately Nunn still hesitates to call for cancellation, except in extreme cases. One surprising explanation he offers for steering clear of most weapons issues is that he doesn’t often know very much about the technologies of various systems, an interesting admission from a senator with his reputation. But it was true. In an interview, Nunn was entirely unaware, for instance, of an important and highly charged debate on the use of stateof-the-art radar. With only two years of placid Coast Guard duty behind him, he says he often defers to senators with first-hand experience, like Barry Goldwater and Howard Cannon—both pilots—on tactical air issues.

On nuclear questions, he has usually deferred to or at least agreed with—Henry Jackson. One former aide to another Democratic senator recalls an Armed Services hearing in the spring of 1978 when Jackson asked Stennis for authorization of more strategic nuclear weapons. Nunn jumped in, echoing the concern. “What do you think we still need speecifically?” Stennis is said to have replied. Jackson and Nunn said more strategic capability generally. “Speecifically,” Stennis repeated, firmer this time. Jackson could not come up with a list, and neither could Nunn.

This deference to the wisdom of others has waned some in recent years, but it remains characteristic of Nunn, and it helps explain why he has not put his stature and knowledge to better use. The reason he has not gone further—has not followed his logic where it leads—is partly that residual trust for all things military, partly the unreasonable fear of serious political consequences in Georgia, and partly an understandable concern about spreading himself too thin. But it involves something else, too: life in what might be called Washington’s national security establishment, and the rules that establishment imposes on its members.

Capital R Responsible

From the time he first trooped into Mike Mansfield’s office with great-uncle Carl Vinson to seek a place on the Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn has sought to be a member of the Senate “club,” a word reserved for those senators who function especially well within the peculiar constraints of the institution. Nunn is, for all of his tenacious dedication to the interests of his constituency, a budding fixture in a certain highflying Washington orbit.

Is U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Vernon Walters having a small dinner for outgoing CIA Deputy Director Bobby Inman? Nunn and his wife Colleen are on the list. Does Nunn have an idea fora joint U.S.-Soviet crisis management post to monitor the possibility of accidental nuclear war? Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger invites the senator to the Pentagon for a private lunch to discuss it. Does it look as if Scoop Jackson is taking unfair credit in the press for originating the idea behind the crisis management post? Nunn feels perfectly comfortable calling up a reporter from The New York Times to straighten him out on which senator came up with the proposal first.

This is all standard enough for a prominent senator, but there is something about Nunn that allows him to operate in such an environment with particular ease. From the time he became president of the Perry, Georgia, Chamber of Commerce at age 24, Nunn has been not only ahead of his peers in terms of career, but decidedly ahead in understanding the requirements this kind of world places on someone trying to get ahead. If he still looks more like a small-town bank clerk than the stereotyped image of a silverhaired senator, he has long since learned to project a mature, senatorial impression. If he remains too conscious of his political base to be considered a full-blown creature of Washington, he is nonetheless highly attuned to the rhythms of life in the capital—the “rules.”

This sense of comfort in a certain respectable, behind-the-scenes Washington life manifests itself politically in the idea of “consensus,” which Nunn stresses repeatedly as a way of explaining Why he doesn’t believe it is his role to lead the charge for the Democrats against the Reagan defense plan. The notion of a consensus defense and foreign policy goes back to the late 1940s, when Arthur Vandenberg, an isolationist senator from Michigan, converted to internationalism. Vandenberg’s conversion was marked by his support for the Marshall Plan and the creation of the NATO Alliance, the latter of which since has turned into the touchstone of this respectable (with a Capital R) approach. Sure enough, this year, Sam Nunn returned from Europe with his most recent report on the state of the Alliance, his third since joining the senate. As usual it said nothing shocking, which suited the foreign policy establishment just fine.

As it is traditionally expressed in cloakrooms and salons and sober foreign policy journals, such respectability doesn’t just mean you cooperate with the other party and with the president. It also means you keep your voice low. This view of national security policy came under pressure during the 1970s—Vietnam and CIA disclosures almost shattered it—but it’s a tradition Nunn says he very much believes in. That’s why his bold, highly partisan activity on a particular issue is so revealing.

The issue was the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II treaty that came up for debate in the Senate in 1979. Earlier, Nunn had urged that the Armed Services Committee take the unusual step of questioning President Carter’s nominee for director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Paul Warnke—a task generally believed to belong exclusively to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 1979, the jurisdictional question came up again. Chairman Stennis strongly felt that it was not the role of the committee overseeing the military to pass judgment on a foreign policy question like SALT II. This was the traditionalist consensus-building approach Richard Russell always followed in such matters, but Nunn did nothing to embrace it and the Stennis position did not prevail.

This may seem like a simple turf question, but it goes to the heart of Nunn’s position on SALT II, which was seen fora time as pivotal in the Senate debate. The senator believed that arms control, which in the past had been viewed as a foreign policy question, should not be separated from the issue of military strength. The “consensus” approach would have been to back the president in a serious matter of this kind, or, if interested in some modification or deal on the treaty, to pass the word quietly within the Senate club and the White House. Instead, Nunn went public. Showing his always keen sense of political opportunity, he used the SALT debate as a partisan forum to push for a four- to five-percent real increase in military spending. Without a commitment by Carter to such an increase, Nunn told the press he could not support SALT II, regardless of the specific merits of the treaty itself.

This approach was controversial (Warnke, now back in private law practice and free to speak more candidly, says, “It stinks—it’s perilously close to:blackmail”), but it worked. Nunn was not responsible for killing the treaty—it died because of the tempest over Soviet troops in Cuba and the invasion of Afghanistan—but he was responsible for helping forge a large public constituency for increasing defense spending. All of his cautious, measured, respectable inclinations had been set aside in favor of a full-blooded battle cry in support of a particular position. Nunn has no regrets about his role in 1979, and he won’t admit it was partisan. But it surely was. In fact, some have suggested that the conservative drumbeat for more defense that started around that time helped pave the way for Reagan’s election.

The reason Nunn’s divisive tactic is relevant today has nothing to do with the merits of SALT II or whether arms control should or should not be held hostage to other matters. It has everything to do with how much Sam Nunn can be depended on to do what is required at present. The point is, if Nunn didn’t worry about kicking up a little fuss then, he shouldn’t worry now, when his position has been inverted.

Whether the change results from shifts in his thinking, or the Reagan defense policy, or both, it definitely has taken place. “At that time [during the SA LT debate] I felt the Carter administration was placing entirely too much emphasis on arms control to the exclusion of a sound national security program,” he said recently. “In the first 18 months, the Reagan administration’s problem has been exactly the opposite.” Where three years ago he pushed for across-the-board increases in defense spending, he now says that administration “needs to give people the sense that we’re not just spending across the board.”

So if Sam Nunn could break out of the club rules in the late 1970s on the need for more defense spending, he could certainly do so now on the need for less. The same linkage of foreign policy and defense goals that in 1979 was used to build a constituency for a stronger military could, in 1982, be used to build a constituency for a more efficient—and less grandiose—U.S. strategy.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear Nunn say things like, “I don’t think I’m capable of laying out a comprehensive defense strategy; that has to start in the executive branch,” and other such concessions to the tired old respectable consensus tradition. In 1979, Nunn didn’t say, “I’ll let the executive branch decide what our defense buildup should consist of.” He came up with the proposals himself, proposals he .hastens to add that were much more detailed and comprehensive than a simple across-the-board increase of four to five percent.

Right now, Nunn knows what the premise of the new U.S. strategy should be—that we don’t have the money to project American power as we have in the past. And he knows that the Pentagon is having trouble building the right weapons— weapons that are affordable and that actually work. What he hasn’t been able to do is move from saying that American defense should be rethought—a respectable enough view for op-ed pieces and think tanks—to actually putting himself on the line with some concrete suggestions on which changes should be made, which parts of the world we should pull back from and which elements of our force structure would be superfluous under the new strategy. That is a tall order, but reachable for a man of Nunn’s abilities.

One suspects that the real reason Nunn won’t take this step has little to do with his protest that it is beyond his capacity as a senator to do anything more than “get a dialogue going.” Anyone who runs for president of the Chamber of Commerce at 24 and the U.S. Senate at 34 can hardly be considered lacking the requisite moxie. No, Nunn shuns the bold, inspired role because, right now, anyway, he must feel the price too high. The price of inching out a little on that limb of respectability, of occasionally risking error, of losing the warm feeling that comes with being popular among both the Walter Mondales and the Barry Goldwaters. Nunn craves that happy, safe middle ground. It makes him feel responsible.

In another sense, though, it really should be viewed as fear of responsibility, or even, if it can be said about an ambitious young senator, fear of leadership. At bottom the fear isn’t really much different from that of the Pentagon colonel or planner Nunn faces so often across the table. If he steps out of line—if he tells Congress too much— he fears his credibility back at the office might well be shot.

The difference is that in the case of the bureaucrat the fear may be justified; it takes remarkable courage for him to follow the instinct for truth to its logical conclusions. But in the case of the senator, courage isn’t really at issue. The respect will remain, the seat will be safe, the “credibility,” built up over many years, will not dissipate overnight. In fact, it will expand. Sam Nunn may not know it yet, but everybody—even the cream of the Washington club–responds to leadership.Especially when it comes from a senator who is knowledgeable, hard-working, and the future chairman of the most powerful military committee in the Congress.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.