Sam Nunn tells me a story.
The story the former Democratic U.S. senator from Georgia tells is about how a partnership grew into a friendship. It’s about how that friendship changed history and likely saved tens of thousands, and maybe hundreds of thousands, of lives. In the end, it’s also about how we Americans have lost our way.
It’s a story about Nunn and former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana.
As we talk, Nunn and I sit in a small conference room in the Nuclear Threat Initiative offices, a not-for-profit he founded and led that aims to reduce the dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction. NTI’s office is less than two blocks from the White House, but, in the current political climate, it seems to exist on a different, saner planet.
A compact bespectacled man, Nunn tells his story in a soft, Georgia drawl.
The story starts in late 1991, when he was contacted by officials in the then Soviet Union about the impending dissolution of their government. The Soviets had a massive nuclear stockpile — more than 40,000 missiles, bombs and other vehicles of annihilation.
That was enough to destroy the world many, many, many times over.
If the Soviet Union collapsed and panicked or greedy Russian officials began selling off that arsenal to terrorists or criminals or even just hoarding the weapons for themselves, a series of holocausts could follow.
Nunn traveled to the Soviet Union, saw its days were numbered and realized the threat was real.
When he returned to the United States, fired by a sense of urgency, he realized he couldn’t awaken Congress, the members of which were happy to see the Soviet empire crumble, to the danger by himself. He needed a partner, a Republican everyone respected, everyone trusted.
He chose Lugar.
“It wasn’t even close,” he said.
He found that Lugar was alert to the threat and already trying to find a solution.
They decided to link their efforts.
Their task was a formidable one.
Lugar and Nunn had to persuade a reluctant Congress to allocate massive amounts of foreign aid to a former enemy at a time when America suffered through a recession. They also had to cajole leaders in the disintegrating Soviet Union to disarm at a time when they felt most vulnerable.
The odds were long. The consequences for failure would be tragic.
Somehow, they succeeded.
Nunn and Lugar persuaded Congress to allocate the funds and the Russians to dismantle their arsenal.
The two men knew each other before they started working on disarmament, but not well. Their labors together, though, made them friends, their relationship based on absolute trust and respect.
A Republican and a Democrat became the closest of allies.
They had their differences.
Nunn says he and Lugar would tease each other about peanuts, an industry critical to Georgia’s economy. Nunn favored federal supports for the peanut industry. Lugar did not.
Instead of allowing a difference of opinion to fester into acrimony, they turned it into humor.
And found ways to work together in other areas.
I ask Nunn what the world would be like if they hadn’t succeeded.
He smiles, ruefully.
“That’s like asking about the dog that didn’t bark,” he says.
Doubtless, there would have been a horror, he continues. Having that many nuclear weapons floating around in the wrong hands would have made that inevitable.
Would something like Nunn-Lugar have been possible if he’d been working with any other Republican besides Dick Lugar?
Nunn locks his eyes on me.
“No,” he says. “And I think he would say the same about me.”
He jokes that the result of their partnership — their friendship — is that each man has lost half his name.
“The world knows us as ‘Nunn Lugar’ or ‘Lugar Nunn,’” he drawls, and chuckles.
Their work asserted America’s moral leadership at a time when the world could have descended into horror and chaos. They saved lives — how many, no one can know.
The story of Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar is about how a Democrat and a Republican minimized their differences and partnered to make the world a better, safer place.
It’s a story about what Americans can accomplish when they work with, not fight against, each other.
It’s a story we seem to have forgotten.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.