Ideological purity has never been one of Sam Nunn’s concerns, at least not in the positive sense of the word “concern.” In fact, you get the idea from talking and listening to him that partisan lockstep is a big part of our problem.
Which why nobody should have been surprised when the career-long Democrat and four-term U.S. Senate veteran from Georgia turned up at his old haunts on Capitol Hill earlier this month to support two cabinet nominees of a Republican president.
Nunn didn’t do this because he’s an avid fan of President Trump. On the contrary, Nunn was not only a supporter of his party’s nominee Hillary Clinton, but he has expressed contempt for Trump — at least to the extent Sam Nunn publicly expresses contempt for anybody — calling him “an apprentice in the nuclear arena” with a “colossal ego” and “no appetite for learning.” According to a story this week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nunn said in a recent interview he stands by that assessment, and “thinks Trump’s advisers need to change his Twitter password.”
But his skepticism about Trump is a separate matter (or is it?) from his statements of support for the president’s nominees Rex Tillerson for secretary of state and James Mattis for secretary of defense. (Mattis has been approved, and Tillerson almost certainly will be.)
Nunn’s primary work since his political retirement has been as a founding member and director of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an international nonprofit focused on reducing the danger posed by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Politics aside, Nunn would certainly consider it in the national interest, a matter of the greater good, to surround an “apprentice” president of notoriously volatile temperament with as many able, and stable, advisers as possible.
“We have a lot less checks and balances in the foreign policy and security arena than we do on the domestic side,” Nunn told the AJC, “so I think the two appointments … to me are the most important, particularly for a new president who has not had the experience.”
Diplomatically phrased, as is Nunn’s style.
Beyond that, Nunn’s concern about partisan gridlock has been an increasingly worrisome subject for him since his Senate retirement in 1997: “I’d never passed a very significant piece of legislation without a Republican partner, and somehow we’ve got to get back to that. It doesn’t mean you agree on everything but civility is at the heart of it.”
In an interview with the L-E several years ago about the founding and purpose of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (whose international board of directors includes Nunn’s former Republican Senate colleagues Richard Lugar and Pete Domenici), Nunn lamented that “the parties are being run by the wings, and there’s no fuselage.”
Twenty years removed from elective politics, one of Georgia’s most distinguished political leaders is still trying to keep the wings attached to something that will fly instead of flying apart.