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Born to be Mild
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He's influential, informed, and responsible. But do you really want Sam Nunn to be president?
The Washington Monthly
, pp. 10-18 -
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Born to be Mild
responsible. But do
He's influential, informed, and
you really want
by Timothy Noah
to be president?
Dressed in Sunday-best pastels, the ladies of the
Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs sit in a confer-
ence 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 decorat-
ed 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 de-
fense. Introducing Nunn, Barbara Fallin, a longtime
family friend, speaks of the growing national reputa-
tion 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 in-
troduced 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 com-
pete in the world." The crowd is in the palm of his
As he shifts to global issues, however, Nunn starts
to display his usual weakness on the stump-a ten-
Tiniothp Noah is a contributing editor of the New England
Monthly and The Washington Monthly.
dency to get lost in a thicket of details. "We're spend-
ing about 5 1/2, 6 percent of our gross national prod-
uct on national defense," says Nunn, while "the Sovi-
ets 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 a g d o n ' 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 respect-
ful 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,
10 The Washington Monthly/December 1989
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