For Jimmy Carter, a 'Nay' from Sen. Sam Nunn Would Be the Unkindest Wound in SALT II

updated 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Even as Jimmy Carter moved dramatically to focus America's attention on the energy crisis, he kept one eye peeled on that other great national debate: SALT II. The proposed arms limitation pact with the Soviet Union, in the President's words, will be "the most important treaty to be reached in my lifetime." Now he must persuade a balky Senate that this is so. Specifically, he has to convince Sen. Sam Nunn.

Nunn, 40, is the Senate Armed Services Committee's acknowledged expert on defense, the man other senators consult on military policy. At first glance the White House would appear to have few problems recruiting Nunn—a Georgian and a Democrat—to its cause. But, owing in part to political differences back home between him and Carter, their relationship cannot be called "close." At the moment the senator's stance on SALT II adds up to a suspenseful "maybe."

Just 34 "nays" could kill the treaty, and as many as 35 senators are judged at the moment to be leaning in that direction. The White House believes Nunn could sway several of his colleagues—when he makes up his mind. "Without Sam Nunn," an Administration topsider concedes, "we're dead."

The senator, whose defense expertise dates back to his job in 1962 as counsel to his granduncle Carl Vinson's House Armed Services Committee, has a list of reservations on SALT II. Some of them are quite technical, but they add up to the fear that the treaty gives more to the Soviets than to the U.S. and could result in less stability between the two countries, not more. He is dubious that SALT II can be adequately policed or that it will automatically lead to more arms reduction in SALTs III and IV. "These questions can be answered satisfactorily," Nunn stresses. "I'll be asking experts from both sides—I am undecided." He will remain that way, he says, until all of his doubts are aired fully during committee hearings scheduled to begin this week.

Born and reared in the central Georgia town of Perry (pop. 8,000), Samuel Augustus Nunn Jr. has moved cautiously all his life. An Emory University-educated lawyer and a little-known state legislator, he won election to the Senate in 1972 with support as diverse as archsegregationist Lester Maddox and black activist Julian Bond (whose endorsement was kept secret until election morning to prevent a white backlash). Although Nunn backed both of Jimmy Carter's gubernatorial campaigns, Carter repaid him—in a move he must now surely regret—by hand-picking another candidate for the Senate race. Nunn thrashed the governor's man in the primary and went on to make a name for himself in Washington with unusual speed. Says one committee staffer: "Watching Sam operate belies the notion that you need seniority to get things done around here." Georgia voters returned Nunn to Washington last November with an 84 percent majority.

Nunn is earnest, if not humorless, on and off the Senate floor. "Sam doesn't have a whole lot of idle thoughts," says his wife, Colleen, whom he met in Paris and, in an uncharacteristic burst of lightheartedness, romanced on the Riviera. Colleen has worked hard on his campaigns. In turn, Nunn has vowed to take more of a part in raising their children, Michelle, 12, and Brian, 10. "I've spent so much time campaigning and fund raising, I feel my family has been slighted," he voices the familiar politician's lament. One recent effort at improved domestic diplomacy: He returned home from a political trip at 3:30 a.m. to watch both kids in early morning soccer games.

As Carter forces the fight to pass SALT intact, and Senate opponents try to nail amendments to it, Nunn will be caught in the middle. His friends and family predict the notoriety won't affect his vote—or turn his head. Being a respected senator—perhaps someday chairman of his committee—is the highest ambition Nunn harbors, friends say. Besides, Nunn candidly admits: "I think, without any insinuations intended, that the nation will not be looking for another Georgian President in my lifetime." Nunn's decision on SALT may help determine whether the nation reelects the Georgian President it already has.

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