After retiring from the U.S. Senate in 1993, Alan Cranston--who
died on New Year's Eve of the true new millennium in the home of his son,
Kim--began a new career that was as important as the one he left behind
as four-term senator from California and majority whip. He embarked on a
campaign to seize the opportunity afforded by the end of the Cold War to
abolish nuclear weapons.
His opposition to nuclear weapons was long-standing. He first adopted
the cause as president of the United World Federalists in the late 1940s.
As a senator, he worked to advance the control and reduction of nuclear
arms. In 1984, in a brief run at the presidency, he made the issue the
centerpiece of his campaign.
After leaving the Senate he worked on the issue first as chairman of
the Gorbachev Foundation and then as the president of the Global Security
Institute, which he founded. The most important of its accomplishments
was to put together, as part of a new coalition of groups called Project
Abolition, the Responsible Security Appeal, which calls for action
leading to abolition, and was signed, at Cranston's urging, by such
notable people as Paul Nitze, Gen. Charles Horner and former President
Carter. The appeal will be circulated by Project Abolition as the
foundation of a wider nuclear abolition campaign in the United States in
the months to come.
It was in this work to eliminate nuclear weapons that I got to know
him and came to be, I believe I can say, his friend. He possessed a
modesty that would have been notable in any human being but was
astonishing in an elected politician. On his answering machine he was
"Alan"--as he was to most who knew him. The human being not only had
survived the official, it had come through without any detectable
distortion whatever. Self-reference--not to speak of bluster or
bragging--was at the zero level, as were all other forms of showmanship.
Equally, there was zero variation in his manner toward the small and the
great, the scruffy and the expensively suited. Sometimes I wondered how a
four-term senator could have managed this, and in the course of many days
of travel and meetings together, I believe I came to understand at least
one reason. It wasn't that he underrated himself or failed to appreciate
the importance of his position. He had, for instance, a nation-spanning
Rolodex and entree at every level of American life, and he used these to
the hilt in the cause. It was that his concentration, which was intense,
was entirely on the work at hand.
At every single meeting I attended with him, he made something happen.
He passed along news, received news, asked for a further meeting,
arranged one for someone else, won support for a project or set a new
project in motion--a job for someone, a research organization, an appeal,
a television program, a film.
He moved as swiftly as he moved quietly. The work was hard,
intellectually as well as practically, and there just was no time for
wasted motion, blather or nonsense. At meetings he was silent most of the
time. He kept so imperturbably still--a gaunt Buddha--only to speak up
quietly at the end, summing up what had been said, making sense of it and
offering suggestions, which usually formed the basis for what was done.
Not for nothing had he seven times been elected Senate Democratic whip.
What was true of his manner was true of his mind: It was, even in his
80s, fresh, resilient, receptive, reasonable, sensible, constructive,
unburdened by conventional wisdom, not encrusted by habit and crowned
with what can only be called wisdom.
The work, which absorbed all his professional life, was reducing
nuclear weapons until they were gone. There was never a more practical
and effective man than Alan Cranston, and none with a more keen or more
accurate sense of what was possible in the political world and what was
not, yet his opposition to nuclear weapons was above all moral. At an
event launching the Appeal for Responsible Security, he said of nuclear
deterrence: "This may have been necessary during the Cold War; it is not
necessary forever. It is not acceptable forever. I say it is unworthy of
our nation, unworthy of any nation; it is unworthy of civilization."
Rarely in recent American political life have common sense,
effectiveness, persistence and vision been combined in one person as they
were in him. Nothing can replace him as a friend. As for the work--the
force of his example, if we have the strength to follow it, must make
good our loss.
Jonathan Schell teaches at Wesleyan University and is a Fellow at the Nation Institute. This article is excerpted from one appearing in the Nation, where he is the Peace and Disarmament Correspondent
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times