Paul Tsongas Prepares His Ultimate Weapon on Arms Control: a Senate Filibuster

updated 04/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Kenneth L. Adelman was not having a good day. It was 10 weeks ago and the President's nominee to head up the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was wriggling under hard questioning by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Asked whether limited nuclear war is possible, Adelman replied, "I have no thoughts in that area." Well, how would he react to a hypothetical offer by the Soviets to eliminate all nuclear weapons? "I've never in my life entertained that idea," he replied. In all, the highly controversial nominee responded that he "didn't know" or "hadn't thought about it" to 16 questions on arms control and the nuclear balance of terror. Though at a subsequent hearing the 36-year-old former assistant to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sought to make amends for the impression that he was "somehow unfamiliar with the issues," Adelman's poor showing that afternoon made him at least one determined enemy. "I will do all that I can," vowed Sen. Paul Tsongas (D.-Mass.) "to defeat this nomination." To that end Tsongas has threatened use of parliamentary debate's ultimate weapon: the filibuster.

This week Tsongas may make good on his threat. If Adelman's nomination comes to the Senate floor, he says, he is ready to bring the Senate's business to a halt by filibustering for as many as 10 days with support from a group of leather-lunged Democrats. Tsongas, a liberal, claims that strong personal feelings oblige him to borrow the delaying tactic usually associated with diehard Southern conservatives. "As I listened to Adelman," recalls Tsongas, 42, "I remembered a night two years ago when I was putting my daughter Ashley to bed. She was 7 at the time and out of nowhere she asked, 'Daddy, if there's a war, will I be killed?' " Struck by the thought, Tsongas asked Adelman, father of Jessica, 7, and Jocelyn, 5, about his responsibility to his daughters. Though Tsongas doesn't recall the exact response, he knows he didn't hear the emotional commitment he wanted.

Adelman, now deputy to United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, suffered a more serious loss of credibility when a reporter testified he had once called arms control talks "a sham." On Feb. 24 the Republican-dominated Foreign Relations Committee handed Adelman a stinging rebuke, a 9-8 thumbs-down vote and a verdict of "not qualified." The committee later obtained documents suggesting that Adelman, contrary to his sworn testimony, was preparing extensive personnel changes, and his political stock sank even lower.

Tsongas denies that there is any personal animus in his campaign against Adelman. Rather, he argues, the target is the President's policy on arms control. "This is the ultimate issue," says Tsongas, "and Adelman is now a symbol of the Administration's lack of commitment to arms control. No President who really wants disarmament talks would have appointed a Kenneth Adelman." Tsongas and other senatorial critics, such as Alan Cranston, John Glenn and even Republican Charles Mathias, maintain that even if Adelman is as committed as he claims, his relative inexperience would be a crippling handicap in the extremely intricate diplomacy of arms talks. "He's a perfect bureaucrat who's not going to cause waves," claims Tsongas. "And if he did stand up to the President on arms control, there would be no constituency to back him up."

If the Adelman nomination arrives before the full Senate with a good chance of confirmation, Tsongas and his supporters will try to talk it to death. His staff is boning up on filibuster techniques and drawing up mammoth tracts for their man to deliver. "It's not an issue where you run out of things to talk about," Tsongas chuckles. He means to stay on the arms control topic even if he has to read aloud from written texts. "Reading the phone book discredits your activity dramatically," he notes. Aide Rich Arenberg, 37, is to be his parliamentary counselor-of-war, ready to head off antifilibuster maneuvers. Tsongas has warned him, "You're going to be with me every minute, so you better know what you're doing." Fatigue should not be a critical factor—the Senator runs seven miles three times a week and is in good shape. Even if the Republican leadership does decide to make Tsongas spiel into the night, he expects his colleagues to spell him long enough for him to go home to shower, shave, change clothes and catch enough sleep to keep from becoming a zombie.

The bullpen is loaded with talent. Senators Alan Cranston (D.-Calif.), Max Baucus (D.-Mont.), Dale Bumpers (D.-Ark.) and Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.) have agreed to relieve Tsongas when he tires. But the Senator still hopes to avoid the filibuster—an obstructionist tactic he dislikes. Tsongas would prefer the White House to withdraw Adelman's name—or for Adelman himself to beat a graceful retreat. Neither course now seems likely. Adelman is hanging tough and President Reagan has said: "You bet I am sticking with Adelman. He's excellently qualified."

"I'm not out to get the man," says Tsongas. "I think he's a very decent person and I like him." The two men share a particular interest in Africa; Adelman wrote his Georgetown Ph.D. dissertation about African affairs, and Tsongas was a Peace Corps volunteer to Ethiopia from 1962 to 1964. What separates them most profoundly now is Tsongas' haunting memory of a child's question. "We are old enough to realize we are going to die," he says. "We have not adjusted to the idea that our children may be incinerated by some madness of an arms race."

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