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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Sam Nunn for Veep?

It’s officially “Veep Week” over at The New Republic, and today Michael Crowley offers arguments in favor of former GA Sen. Sam Nunn as Obama’s running-mate.
As I’ve noted before, I worked in the Senate for Sam Nunn back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and did some speechwriting for him after that. I truly revere the man, as much for what he has done after leaving the Senate (his often-lonely crusade to deal with nuclear proliferation and everything related to the threat of nuclear terrorism or accidental nuclear war) as for what he did in the Senate for 24 years. But having been out of touch with him for some time, I also have no idea if Nunn is interested in running for vice president (he’s been in a grand total of one competitive political race, and that was in 1972), and have a healthy appreciation for the reasons other Democrats don’t like the idea.
Crowley’s argument for Nunn stresses his national security street cred (made more acceptable to many antiwar Dems because of Nunn’s outspoken opposition to the First Gulf War and his statements deploring the current Iraq war as a strategic disaster); his ability to reinforce Obama’s recently vulnerable claims to bipartianship; and his reassuring, “fatherly” personal image. He also acknowledges that strong antipathy to Nunn among gays and lesbians, thanks to his leading role in the 1993 Gays In the Military saga, could all but disqualify him from the ticket. (Nunn has recently indicated that it’s time to reconsider “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I have reason to believe from watching him deal respectfully and supportively with gay staffers that he’s not a homophobe, but what’s done is done).
I actually think Crowley may have understated Nunn’s potential value to Obama, either as a running-mate or as a prominent surrogote, on national security. Think about this: underlying all of the Bush-Cheney administration’s arguments for its version of the War on Terror, including the Iraq War, the sweeping rejection of civil liberties, and the imperial view of presidential powers, has been the claim that the threat of nuclear terrorism makes this a unique period of U.S. history. Dick Cheney can hardly utter three sentences without mentioning the subject.
Sam Nunn has the unique credibility to demonstrate the fraudulent nature of these arguments, which conceal a dreadful negligence towards the actual threat of nuclear terrorism. Before and even after 9/11, the administration sought to dramatically reduce funding for the Nunn-Lugar initiative aimed at dealing with nuclear security in the former Soviet Bloc (forcing Nunn, eventually, to seek private funding to deal with the subject himself), and it took years for Bush to make nuclear security an issue in bilateral talks with Russia.
Moreover, and for the same reason, Nunn would be very useful in getting under John McCain’s thin skin on the security implications of the GOP candidate’s apparent determination to launch a new Cold War with Russia. And best I can tell, Nunn is in general accord with Barack Obama’s overall national security vision, which has gotten scarce attention in the news media. That’s probably why Nunn, surprising a lot of people, endorsed Obama for president back in April, a highly unusual step for a cautious politician who had last made political news at the beginning of the year by backing the idea of a third-party “Unity” ticket.
Crowley goes on to make an effort to turn one of Nunn’s supposed handicaps–he’s boring–into a strength, as a “fatherly” counterpoint to the youthful excitement generated by Obama. While I agree Nunn would be reassuring, particularly to older voters, to what’s left of conservative Democrats, and most of all to the Senior Punditocracy, whose members typically think Nunn walks on water–I actually don’t buy the premise. Nunn’s reputation as “boring” is largely the product of the fact that he’s gotten virtually no attention for anything he’s said and done on subjects other than the inherently “boring” if essential nuts and bolts of defense policy. He and I once conspired to conduct a test case, by crafting a speech to the Atlanta Press Club that said not a word about defense issues. He even told the room full of reporters what he was doing, and challenged them to write about his views on non-defense issues. Not a single story was filed. He was supposed to stay “boring.”
Sam Nunn actually has a wicked sense of humor. He once observed, in one of those back-handed compliments we all learned to expect, that “it takes a lot of boring staff to make a boring Senator.” On another occasion, in 1990, he introduced Bill Clinton at an event as “the first politician in history to become a bright, young rising star in three different decades.” (Clinton responded by saying: “Next time you hear Sam Nunn described as a dour, humorless man, tell them you heard him eat my lunch here today.”). And even though he never had a serious political challenge in Georgia, he was always just as comfortable working the room at a Shoney’s or a Waffle House as he was operating in the Senate cloakroom.
Crowley doesn’t much mine Nunn’s background as a very successful politician, but he does plausibly suggest that Nunn could help Obama put Georgia’s 15 electoral votes in play, in part because the McCain-sapping ballot presence of former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, supplemented by the anticipated high African-American turnout rates, will make the state much closer than in the recent past. And although few Americans under the age of 45 would know Sam Nunn from a lamp-post, that’s not true in Georgia, where he’s perceived, if somewhat dimly these days, as some sort of political deity.
Having said all this about Nunn “shortcomings” that may well be smaller than people think, the real question is whether he wants the gig, and whether Barack Obama thinks his value is enough to offset the very genuine anger at Nunn among gays and lesbians–similar, in many respects, to the feminist hostility to Jim Webb–and the other “base” concerns that would emerge after a close scrutiny of his Senate voting record on a number of domestic issues.
But if nothing else, the serious discussion of Sam Nunn As Veep may illustrate the extent to which he could serve as a significant campaign surrogate, and next year, perhaps as a key member of the Obama administration, where being effective but boring won’t be much of a handicap.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist
UPDATE 2: Another source of affinity, given Obama’s highly communitarian rhetoric and ethic of service, is Nunn’s history as perhaps his generation’s most avid congressional supporter of voluntary national service. Back in the Bush 41 administration, Nunn represented the radical wing of congressional sentiment on the scope of a national service inititative (radical in the sense of scale, not meaning support for mandatory service), contributing a great deal to the eventual Clinton AmeriCorps initiative. It’s really personal with Nunn: his wonderful daughter, Michelle Nunn (who mulled over a 2004 Senate race in Georgia before withdrawing, mainly because she had a very young child) is a long-time service professional who is currently CEO of the Points of Light Foundation.

6 comments on “Sam Nunn for Veep?

  1. ducdebrabant on

    James Webb, by the way, apologized to women:
    “Postenrieder denounced the article at an Allen news conference last month and asked Webb to apologize. He did, and she now supports him.”
    He has also taken a more enlightened position, not simply declared that it might conceivably be time for hearings on the possibility of perhaps taking a somewhat more enlightened position at some time in the indefinite future.
    “Webb called the article an “overreach” and said he is now comfortable with the combat roles of Navy women, who today are restricted only from submarines and service as Navy Seals.”
    Just as many women have been forgiving of men whose positions evolve over time, many gay men and women would undoubtedly be forgiving of Nunn, if he too apologized and embraced a different position. We have done so, in fact, over and over, with many politicians. Nunn simply refuses to admit a thing. He still says he did the right thing at the time, and he still advocates no change, other than a willingness to have the matter discussed. Guess what? The matter has never stopped being discussed.
    Webb didn’t get women’s votes for free, and neither should Nunn get gay votes for free. In his heart of hearts, Webb may still disapprove of women in the armed forces, but he personally instituted reforms (willingly or not) and created thousands of positions for them. Nunn isn’t even polite enough to lie, let alone make any amends.
    Even Thurmond and Wallace apologized for their segregationist pasts. I still can’t believe so many black people forgave them, but they did.

  2. ducdebrabant on

    Mr. Kilgore, I don’t doubt your word about what you’ve seen. I didn’t call that evidence “contrived.” I just deny that it evidences anything positive in the political sphere for gay men and lesbians as American citizens.
    What exactly do you infer from it? That Nunn is open to supporting marriage equality, for example? Was Nunn less polite to gay people he encountered in the workplace in 1993 than he is today? I suspect not.
    I do not doubt for a moment that many people have personally witnessed Sam Nunn being nice to individual homosexuals. I have personally witnessed misogynists being nice to women, and racists being nice to people of other races; and as a homosexual I have had lovely conversations on neutral topics with people perfectly capable of opposing the repeal of sodomy laws. I deny the political significance of this phenomenon for homosexuals in the general population.
    And if Nunn’s private behavior is completely at odds with his public behavior, who is to say it isn’t his private behavior that is phony? We’re not talking REALLY private, after all, are we? What you’re alluding to is, as I understand it, workplace politesse.
    Most of us don’t have to deliberate whether to attend a cocktail party where Sam Nunn might be present. Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t hesitate. That is rather different from deliberating (which all of us must do) whether to support Nunn for Vice President. Nobody is accusing Nunn of laying for anybody with a baseball bat.
    What if Vice President Nunn decided to oppose President Obama on repealing DOMA, for example, or come down once again on the side of unequal treatment for gay and lesbian soldiers? He didn’t mind bucking a President of his own party when he was in the Senate, on an issue on which Bill Clinton campaigned and won a presidential election. The consequences of a sitting Vice President either breaking with his President or threatening privately to do so would be catastrophic for gay men and women.
    As a matter of fact there are libertarians who advocated the repeal of all sodomy laws while personally detesting homosexuality. Gays in Georgia might have seen their state’s sodomy law repealed by a libertarian legislature long before they’d have seen Sam Nunn advocating for its repeal. I have searched, and can find no evidence that he ever did.
    The problem with anecdotal and un-documented evidence, that cannot be revealed without a violation of privacy, is that with respect to politicians it is usually unknown for a reason. If Nunn had cared to embrace homosexuals publicly, I’m sure that evidence would be part of the public record. Even his recent statement about military service is grudging and non-substantive.
    Most of us realize that life goes a lot more smoothly if we interact with those we MUST interact with — in the workplace, socially — without making unnecessary waves. In the Senate particularly, it is considered appropropriate to refer to the most loathesome individual as “my distinguished colleague.” I’m sure Nunn has done that a time or two about people he considered utterly undistinguished and was loathe to regard as colleagues.
    But even if Nunn has the highest intellectual admiration and the warmest personal fondness for, say, Barney Frank, there isn’t the slightest evidence that Barney Frank could ever attain full citizenship rights in the United States insofar as it is up to Sam Nunn.
    I’m not an absolutist on this matter. I supported Bill Clinton in spite of DOMA (I accepted his explanation that it was a necessary tactic to forestall a Constitutional amendment). I support Obama despite his lack of support for marriage equality. I understand the need to compromise in the pursuit of equality.
    Sam Nunn is another matter. Sam Nunn made it ugly. Sam Nunn got way down there. Sam Nunn’s only compromise was agreeing to something LESS inimical to my civil rights than the position he advocated and clung to with tenacity. It wasn’t equality that Sam Nunn was pursuing. It still isn’t.
    For all sorts of reasons, I consider many people I like and admire unqualified for the Presidency and Vice Presidency. Surely I am entitled to consider Nunn’s highly public slams on a significant minority and a significant part of the Democratic base a disqualification. I would feel that way, I assure you, even if I had ever shaken Sam Nunn’s hand or observed his wonderful sense of humor.
    And even if I had been privy to such things, I’m not sure it would be so easy to believe in the benevolence of Nunn’s secret views. It’s not that I dismiss lightly your anecdotal and undetailed testimony, Mr. Kilgore. It’s just that I don’t think Senator Nunn’s highly public, well-documented, self-clarifed, unregretted (and even filmed) conduct ought to be so lightly dismissed.
    It had actual concrete consequences, you know. Those consequences persist to this day. One consequence is that our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have lost the services of enlisted Arabic linguists due to those people’s homosexuality. So much for supporting our troops at all costs.
    Nunn’s less public behavior, on the other hand, seems to have had consequences only for your personal opinion of him. Tell me how gay men and lesbians are, or are ever likely to be, the better for it. Your opinion, whose sincerity I do not question, is one to which you are entitled. It’s not a check I am in any position to cash.

  3. edkilgore on

    Thanks for you comments. You and I have had an exchange on this subject in the past, and while I respect your anger at the suggestion that Nunn’s non-homophobic behavior is anecdotal, not documented, there are obviously privacy issues involved. So no, I won’t tell you which gay former Nunn staffer’s experience convinced me that Nunn is not homophobic, but in all fairness, I don’t think you can conclude that all the evidence of that proposition is contrived.
    The bottom line, not just with Nunn, but with a lot of names that are circulating, is where we all draw the line between a Big Tent appeal and what is acceptable to most Democratic voters. A lot of feminists draw the line to exclude Jim Webb; a lot of gays and lesbians (you will note that I did not limit that to “activists”) would draw the line to exclude Nunn.
    But IMHO, ducdebrabant, no one is served by anger or categorical statements on these issues. There are plenty of good, highly progressive, pro-GLBT-rights Democrats who can see, if not necessarily agree with, the case for a Veep like Nunn. It probably ain’t happening, and the real argument will begin when Obama’s short list becomes evident.
    But in the meantime, it’s probably not a good idea to rule out much of anybody who’s a Democrat and who has already endorsed Obama’s explicitly progressive presidential campaign. A Veep selection process that is based on avoiding controversy could well lead to a highly mediocre candidate.
    Thanks again,
    Ed Kilgore

  4. ducdebrabant on

    By the way, I just love this, from Crowley:
    “Nunn would guarantee Obama one unfortunate thing: a backlash from gay and lesbian activists, who are already refreshing bitter memories about the lead role Nunn played in quashing Bill Clinton’s 1993 attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Nunn’s hard stand, which included photo-op tours of cramped U.S. submarine bunks, has been branded “bigotry” by gay bloggers. But Nunn conveyed less of a sense of personal morality than an obligation, as Armed Services Committee chairman, to represent the military’s views.”
    Views which were themselves what? Bigotry, were they not? I’ll be my own judge of what Nunn “conveyed,” thank you very much. But the argument that he made himself a sock puppet for the bigotry of the military brass reassures me neither of his intellectial independence and personal integrity nor of his lack of personal bigotry.
    When the hell did it become the responsibility of serving members of Congress, in the course of their oversight responsibilities, to adopt every point of view — no matter how bigoted — of the military commanders they oversee? Too bad Nunn wasn’t in that chairmanship when Truman was trying to integrate the military racially — then we’d REALLY see some pictures of beds crowded together.
    I cannot imagine holding any position requiring me to advocate a personal prejudice injurious to my fellow citizens that I don’t personally hold. I wouldn’t accept such a position, and neither did Nunn. I don’t give a damn how nice he is to individual homosexuals when he meets them. It’s definitely no nicer than Senators behave who DON’T try to scare the public silly over their sons’ sleeping arrangements. Are there no such Senators available to run with Barack Obama?
    Accounts of Nunn’s decent treatment of homosexuals are so personal and anecdotal and vague that they might fairly be classified as “gossip.” They name no names, they provide no details, they are subjective, unverifiable, and — most importantly — they neither take place in the public sphere nor affect the body politic. If Nunn secretly likes homosexuals personally, he is still in the closet about it. Other men who once trashed homosexuals in the political arena have recanted and apologized. Nunn has not, to this day.
    One thing was clear in 1993. Nunn was speaking from the heart. Some things are so ugly that they MUST be sincere, else they wouldn’t leave your throat.
    Nunn tried to make sure that the policy he’s now allegedly willing to revisit could not BE revisited. His original desire was to write it into the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
    I am not “refreshing bitter memories,” in Crowley’s condescending phrase. He apparently considers any hard feelings about Nunn’s actions at that time to be willful and childish, and sustainable only by some dark whim. Au contraire. Nunn engraved them on my memory by the same methods he seared them into America’s skin at the time. You don’t fearmonger and sully people successfully without leaving a certain lasting impression.
    And not just on “gay and lesbian activists.” On gays and lesbians. People like Crowley always call people like me “activists” when we remember the injuries done by a Sam Nunn. All we actually are is gays and lesbians who read the papers. I don’t write a blog, I don’t carry a sign. But I sure as hell don’t forget. Blacks who used to “refresh bitter memories” about Strom Thurmond never seemed to provoke such a sniffy attitude.
    If I recall that Nunn wanted to lock gays and lesbians out of honorable service for decades or forever, am I one of those pesky “activists”? Maybe to a guy capable of looking straight at bigotry and putting it in quotation marks. There is nothing “unfortunate” about a gay and lesbian backlash to a Nunn candidacy. It is highly fortunate, as a matter of fact, that in spite of all the mischief powerful men like Nunn have tried to do, we have lived to see a day when such a backlash might actually matter.

  5. ducdebrabant on

    Nunn must want the Vice Presidential nomination badly. His attempt to take the stink off his disgraceful fearmongering about gay and lesbian soldiers during the Clinton administration is transparent, but certainly more than he’s ever done before. He must have clinched his fists as he said it:
    “Last week, Nunn — whose name has been floated as a possible running mate to Obama — told reporters in Atlanta that he thinks it would now be appropriate for the nation to revisit the matter.
    “I’m not advocating anything — except I’m saying the policy was the right policy for the right time, and times change. It’s appropriate to take another look,” Nunn was quoted as saying by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.”
    He apologizes for nothing, advocates nothing new, promises nothing, and yet attempts to say something helpful to his ambitions. It’s literally nothing at all, this statement, but the fact that he let the matter pass his lips at all must have seemed like the most painful of necessities to him.
    Nunn’s “Look how close the bunks are” hearings in the 90’s were among the ugliest committee hearings in an era replete with ugly committee hearings. He will never wash away the shame, and he still isn’t trying.
    Sam Nunn is unfit for a place on the Democratic ticket. Let alone to be a heartbeat from the Presidency of the United States.


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