A Conversation With Sam Nunn

Sam Nunn Samuel Augustus Nunn, Cls '60, has represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate since 1972. The Perry, Ga., native is widely regarded as the leading voice of the Democratic Party's moderate-conservative wing, and has often been mentioned as a possible presidential or vice presidential candidate.

As chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee since 1987, Nunn has been involved in many high-profile issues in the areas of arms control, new weapons systems and Pentagon procurement practices.

Widely respected for his expertise in military issues, Nunn has strongly supported a land-based anti-missile system as an alternative to the so-called "Star Wars" plan. He advocates a greater role for Western Europe in its own defense, and favors American emphasis on air power rather than costly ground forces to protect its interests overseas. In that connection, he supports deployment of the Stealth bomber.

Nunn also chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations and serves on the Governmental Affairs Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence. He is also a member of several subcommittees: Government Information and Regulation; Small Business; Urban and Minority-Owned Business Development; and Rural Economy and Family Farming.

He entered Tech as a freshman in 1956, but transferred to Emory University the next year. He received his undergraduate degree from Emory in 1960 and a law degree, also from Emory, in 1962.

Nunn's career in elective politics began in 1968, when he was elected to the Georgia House of Delegates from Houston County. Four years later, Nunn upset the incumbent and won election to the U.S. Senate.

So many current events touch upon your responsibilities in Congress that you must be one of the busiest people in Washington.

Management of time is the hardest part of my job. You have to set priorities. The overriding priority is what is happening in Georgia. Washington priorities are one thing, but Georgia priorities take precedence over that. The Armed Services Committee chairmanship is a top priority, and second is my chairmanship of the subcommittee on Investigations.

There are a lot of days that I don't get through until 7 or 8 o'clock at night. When I look back on the events that took place that day, it seems they should have taken about a week, there's just so much crammed in.

You are widely considered to be the expert in Congress on defense matters. Does that reflect a personal interest, or because defense industries are so important to the state of Georgia?

I would say there are four reasons. When I got out of law school in 1962, I worked for Carl Vinson in Washington, who was then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. I worked in the defense area, on the subcommittee on procurement.

The second factor would be the interest I had in defense as a resident of Houston County. We have a big Air Force base in Warner Robins and the Air Force has a large bearing on the economy in the area. I was on the Air Force Association Citizen Advisory Council and I also headed up the Perry Chamber of Commerce.

A third reason is the heritage. Carl Vinson and Richard Russell had both been very active on the armed services committee. Russell had been chairman and Vinson had been chairman.

The fourth reason would be a general interest in Georgia about the military. But it goes beyond its economic impact--Georgia has been one of the top military recruiting states for years. The South in general is more interested in military affairs than are other parts of the country.

Have you always had an interest in politics?

I grew up with politics. Before I was born, my father had been in the Georgia legislature and on the state board of education. We talked about those things later. My father was also campaign manager in one governor's race back in the '20s. My great uncle was Carl Vinson. Growing up, I remember sometimes I would sit around and talk to him for as long as he had the patience.

When I went to Washington in 1962 and had that exposure working as the counsel on the procurement subcommittee, that was the first time I really got politics in my blood. I knew at that point that I wanted to go into some kind of legislative race and, hopefully, serve in the Congress--that was my ambition.

Would you say that being a senator from Georgia is the realization of your political ambitions?

Being in the Senate has been a great experience for me. I can't think of anything I'd rather do in terms of elective office. I can't think of anything in politics I'd rather do than be a senator.

When 1992 rolls around there will certainly be speculation about "Nunn for President." What do you think of that kind of talk?

Well, I'm flattered by it, but I know that as soon as the first serious article comes out about that possibility, our friends on the left in the Democratic Party will start their inevitable assault. The first flattering article will bring a great number of others that are critical. So it's a mixed bag. You always are gratified and complimented when somebody says that you should be running for president, but it has not been a life-long ambition of mine. At this stage, I'm doing what I really want to do.

Do you find it difficult being a Democrat these days? In terms of presidential politics at least, the party has seemed bent on self-destruction over the past couple of decades.

I have enjoyed being in the Democratic Party. If you look at the whole realm of history, most of the lasting achievements both in foreign policy and domestic policy have come in Democratic administrations.

I am uncomfortable with the post-Vietnam War Democratic National Party and its liberal image. Part of that image is reality, part of it is unfair criticism.

How does the Carter Administration fit into that post-war image?

I believe that Carter was somewhat of an aberration. By that, I mean he was much more moderate than the national party. In fact, Ted Kennedy ran against him for being too moderate. Carter is not what I would call a hard-right conservative; he is in the middle of the political spectrum.

He ran into some unfortunate circumstances when he was president. If Carter had had the support of the left wing of the Democratic Party, and if he had gotten a couple of breaks--for instance, if the Iranian hostage rescue mission had been even partially successful--he would have been reelected to a second term.

Also, the Washington media tried to make the Carter people look like a bunch of yokums.

A number of people say the media is dominated by a liberal point of view.

I wouldn't say that. I think there is an enormous amount of conservative opinion in the media, and an enormous amount of liberal opinion.

Carter received a lot of bad press, if compared to his successor.

I think there has been a bias against Southern politicians in the national media for some time. I haven't felt that personally. I do not in any way think I have been treated unfairly. But the national media has a historic viewpoint that Southerners belong in the legislative body. They don't mind saying good things about them as long as they are in the legislative body, but if they start being presidential candidates, some stereotyping comes out.

Jimmy Carter was anything but a stereotypical Southerner, but some of the national media tried to portray him as that. And, frankly, some of the people around him in his first year or two in office lent themselves to that kind of description. But anybody who knows Jimmy Carter knows that he is far from anything like a man of bias or prejudice, or is in any way narrowminded.

I think Carter's record will look better as time goes on. Reagan is making $2 million speaking fees in Japan while Jimmy Carter is working to get rid of the Guinea worm in Africa--that's making Carter look a lot better in people's eyes.

Did the Reagan Administration get more favorable press than it deserved?

I don't need to get into that. I believe that as time goes by, it'll be put into a more appropriate perspective.

Reagan did some good things. He made some correct moves in foreign and domestic policy. But he also had some excesses. He did not stop the pendulum in the middle; very seldom did he move from something too far left to an appropriate spot in the middle. He swung it too far in American fiscal policy and trade policy, and encouraged a short-term view of the world--sort of an immediate-gratification governmental mode. We are paying the price for that now in our international economic position. We'll pay an even greater price in years to come. It's got to be fumed around. A lot of things that Reagan did have got to be reversed.

Do you sense that things are changing?

Somewhat. I think Bush is a little different. He saw how well that "gratification now" approach worked for his predecessor. You can't criticize it as a political formula, but as a governing philosophy, I think it falls short. But the major part of the reversal is yet to come. As a nation--in business, in government and individually--we are going to have to think much longer-term than we have.

Speaking of change, the events taking place in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe seem almost too good to be true. What is your view?

Let me put it this way: If we've got a choice between taking it the way it's happening now or leaving it the way it was, I would not hesitate a moment in saying "Let's take it the way it's happening." If I could list the ways I would prefer it to happen, I would go somewhat slower in the process. When things move this quickly it's very hard to stop that pendulum in the middle. When you start moving it to the far left, expectations begin to exceed reality. I think that's particularly true in terms of economic expectations.

About a year from now, if there are not very significant improvements in the economies of Eastem Europe, those countries will lend themselves to a lot of demagoguery-type leadership--ethnic demagoguery, nationalistic demagoguery--what I would call "right wing" demagoguery.

Can the United States handle more players in the international marketplace? We're having enough trouble with the existing competition.

That's right. We're living off our foundation from the past. We came out of World War II with almost no competition militarily, economically, politically, socially and just about every other way. But that's changed. Now our margin for error in all these fields is greatly diminished. We're going to have to quit living off the corpus and start producing for this generation and for the future.

I think the thing that has changed in the communist world more than anything else--or that has changed the communist world--is that we are in an age of knowledge and technology and information. Those communist countries cannot afford to compete in a world of computers without having some basic freedoms, so they're having to accord those freedoms to their people in order to compete in the world.

The challenge to us is to do much better in terms of our educational system, human capital, productivity, savings and so forth.

The advent of a more technologically-driven world should certainly increase the stock of schools such as Georgia Tech, but will that be enough to ensure our economic competitiveness in the world?

Our schools of technology and engineering are going to be in more and more demand, no doubt about it. But the math and science stimulation of our young people has to start in the early grades of school. We've got to do something in the 7th and 8th grades to get those kids to take enough math and science so that when they finally decide they want to go into engineering, they're prepared to do so.

A lot of our inner-city kids and rural kids don't have enough math and science background. By the time they get into 11th or 12th grade and decide they want to go to engineering school, they've already defaulted. We've got to turn that around at the lower school level before we're going to see it reflected at the higher level.