Nunn Wields Quiet Control Over Defense

Posted: July 08, 1990

WASHINGTON — Say his name in Washington, and you speak of power. Watch him closely, and you witness a senator exuding the quiet confidence of competence. Question his ambitions, and Sam Nunn will wince, making you think he is just another Georgian trying to survive the rigors of the capital.

As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nunn will wield power in the coming months as the Senate weighs major military reductions in a post- Cold War atmosphere.

Studious and serious, Nunn is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 1992. Yet his most brazen political deeds of recent years have been confined to work within the Democratic Party to broaden its base among conservative voters.

Nunn, at 51, has attained a position in his political life that would bring a proud grin to the face of his grand-uncle and mentor, the late Carl Vinson, the legendary chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who had an aircraft carrier named after him.

"I don't think anyone on our side has figured it out," says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D., Colo.), marveling at the respect and deference many senators show toward Nunn.

In a series of recent speeches, Nunn has already staked out his position in the all-but-certain fight over military spending. He outlined his preferred level of spending and charged that President Bush's budget was flawed with ''big blanks," including the absence of an assessment of the threat to U.S. national security, a military strategy in response to the threat, the future size of the armed forces, how to meet required budget cuts and the need for major weapons.

Bush's budget, Nunn said, is based on a 1988 threat and a 1988 strategy. He said Congress would fill in the blanks if the administration did not.

The speeches came four months after Defense Secretary Dick Cheney presented the administration's budget to Congress, yet Nunn captured the headlines and set the tone for the debate.

"He's very focused, determined, well-reasoned, rational and to-the- point," says Rep. John G. Rowland (R., Conn.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

"He wields his authority very judiciously and fairly and temperately," says John W. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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The defense budget falls within the purview of the Armed Services panel, and as chairman of the panel, Nunn is one of a handful of lawmakers who has control over the largest portion of the federal budget.

Nunn oversees the 20-member committee's closed-door crafting of the defense authorization bill. Once the bill reaches the Senate floor, he is one of two managers who can ensure that an amendment is introduced.

Nunn's power was never more evident than in September when the Senate, working on the $288 billion defense spending bill, restored $600 million for Bush's Strategic Defense Initiative program.

Two days before the vote, the Senate slashed $900 million from the Star Wars program, an action that undercut Nunn's position in House and Senate negotiations.

Nunn pleaded with the Senate to send a message to the House negotiators. The Senate answered the request, 53-47, and restored two-thirds of the Star Wars funds.

On the other hand, Nunn, widely viewed as nonpartisan, took on Bush and his nominee for defense secretary, John Tower.

Allegations of womanizing, excessive drinking and close ties to military contractors undermined Tower's selection, and Nunn led Senate Democrats in handing Bush his first major defeat of the new term.

Yet the wounds inflicted over the Tower nomination healed quickly, and by September it was Nunn who ensured that Bush's military budget was adopted by Congress, largely intact.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who fought Nunn during the Tower debate, says that, despite the contentious encounters, Nunn is "very highly regarded by all of us - Republican and Democrat."

Yet Georgia's senior senator, who has spent 17 years on Capitol Hill, dismisses the suggestion that he wields the power in the military realm.

"Any time you want to legislate around here you have to convince an awful lot of people over a long period of time to get something accomplished. So whatever power there is on Capitol Hill is widely diffused," Nunn said in an interview.

Nunn learned early in his career how Congress works when Vinson hired him in 1962 to serve as counsel to the House Armed Services subcommittee on investigations.

Vinson did not make the process easy for his grand-nephew, dispatching one of the committee's counsels, John J. Courtney, to Georgia to review Nunn's law school transcript and interview his professors at Emory University.

The yearlong job provided a practical education in the workings of Congress and the military as well as a sobering introduction to Cold War politics. The overall experience framed Nunn's approach upon his return to private law practice in his home town of Perry, Ga., 100 miles south of Atlanta.

"It had a big effect on my reading and my studying and my retention of information that related to Congress, not just on military, but in general," Nunn says.

After four years in the Georgia House of Representatives, Nunn sought the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Richard B. Russell, who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee for 16 years.

But Vinson urged him not to run and called some supporters suggesting that they withhold financial support, says Rep. Richard Ray (D., Ga.), who worked as Nunn's administrative assistant for 10 years.

Vinson had reservations about his grand-nephew taking on such a task and thought he should "run for a lesser position," Ray says.

Nevertheless, Nunn challenged Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter's appointee, won the primary by a slim margin and went on to win the general election in 1972.

Nunn largely favored increases in military spending during the Reagan years, but in March 1987 challenged the administration's interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow work on the Star Wars missile defense system.

Nunn developed a reputation as "hard-working, bright and knowledgeable," says John Isaacs of the liberal Council for a Livable World. But the think tank's director believes Nunn is "supercautious and unlikely to get himself out on a limb."

Nunn rarely reacts immediately to the latest announcement from the Pentagon or pronouncement from the White House, choosing instead to craft a careful response that is often issued when the rhetoric has died down.

The cautious style comes from Nunn's father, who was 50 when his son was born.

"You could ask him a question and he might sit there for five minutes - literally - before he ever answered," Nunn recalls. "Some people would go ahead and become so nervous they'd ask six more questions but he'd still be trying to frame the original answer in a precise way, in a way that was meaningful."

Recently Nunn has ventured into campaigning for other Democratic candidates, and in the process his name has been bandied about for higher office - specifically, the presidency.

Back in July 1979, Nunn seemed to squelch that, saying, "I think, without any insinuations intended, that the nation will not be looking for another Georgia president in my lifetime."

But the call grew so loud that Nunn was forced to announce in February 1987 that he would not seek the presidency. He is unopposed in his Senate re- election bid this fall.

With the 1992 presidential race not far off, Nunn refuses to shut the door entirely, saying he has no inclination or plans to seek higher office.

"I don't rule out the possibility that one of these days I'll decide that I may be more interested in exploring the presidency, but I would have to feel that I had the substantive answers to an awful lot of the challenges facing America," he says.

"I'll take another look after the November election and I'm sure I'll be talking to a lot of people. But based on the Reagan rule, I've got a lot of years left and I don't want to make any concrete statements about the future."

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