Cranston's Alter Ego : When the Senator Has Questions, He Has the Answers

Times Political Writer

When Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston could not answer a foreign policy question during his recent campaign kickoff in California, a phone call was hurriedly placed to Washington, where Jerry Warburg, Cranston's chief adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came up with the information.

The incident underscored Warburg's importance to Cranston in the coming months as the Republicans make the senator's record on foreign policy a major issue in his quest for a fourth term.

Whether it is nuclear non-proliferation, superpower arms control or U.S. relations with dictators, Cranston is a leading spokesman for the liberal viewpoint in the Senate.

And right there with him--prodding, advising, writing amendments--is Warburg, the 31-year-old great-grandson of the legendary financier Felix Warburg.

Indeed, some Capitol Hill watchers say that the Warburg-Cranston relationship is a key to understanding how Cranston operates in the Senate.

As the Senate Democrats' "whip," or second in command, Cranston spends much of his time working out technicalities in legislation and assessing the prospects for a range of bills. It is an insider's game of quiet meetings and compromises, and for Cranston, much of the spade work is done by Warburg.

"Alan and I are very close," Warburg said in recent telephone interview. "I'm in charge of all foreign policy, defense and trade issues. Also, in Alan's role as a Democratic leader in the Senate, I act as his emissary and vote counter when he is trying to reach a middle ground with the Republicans on a particular issue."

That is a pretty good description, according to Jeff Bergener, who often dueled with Warburg when Bergener directed the Foreign Relations Committee staff for Chairman Richard G. Lugar, the Republican senator from Indiana.

Lugar and Cranston have been at odds on key issues, and it was up to Bergener and Warburg to work things out.

"When Jerry (Warburg) states a position, you know that it is coming from the senator," said Bergener, who left the government early this year to become a private consultant.

"That is very important when you're negotiating on an issue. To a certain extent there is an idealism to Jerry's viewpoint, as I think there is to Senator Cranston's. But there is also a strong sense of the practical, a sense of what you need to do to get something done."

Perhaps the best example of that involves nuclear non-proliferation, an issue that Cranston and Warburg feel strongly about and that brought them together in the 1970s.

In 1984, when the Reagan Administration proposed to sell nuclear technology to China for peaceful purposes, Cranston infuriated the President and some Republican senators by holding up the deal because he had learned that China was helping Pakistan develop the nuclear bomb.

After he and Warburg helped write non-proliferation safeguards into the package, Cranston agreed to support the President and the deal went through. That angered some Democratic senators, who continued to worry about proliferation.

Met at Briefing

"It was classic Cranston," Warburg said. "The Republican middle (in the Senate) was happy and the Democratic middle was happy, but the right and the left were not."

Warburg first met Cranston when the senator was helping shepherd through through the Senate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. Cranston asked Warburg, then a 23-year-old aide to a congressman, to brief him on the legislation.

"When I got to Alan's office," Warburg recalled, "he had on one of his big grins, because sitting on the sofa was Joseph Nye, the assistant secretary of state in charge of the non-proliferation issue. As you can imagine, I was a little nervous.

"Alan just tossed out a couple of questions and then sat back and took notes on one of his yellow legal pads. I think Dr. Nye and I learned something from each other and moderated our positions. That law would not have come to pass if it had not been for Alan working behind the scenes."

Palatable to Critics

Although Cranston has spent much of the last two years raising money for his reelection and holding community forums in California, Warburg has been in touch with him almost daily, helping him shape his positions on a variety of foreign policy issues.

Warburg learned last year that some Democratic senators were going to introduce hopelessly idealistic "feel good legislation" on South Africa and apartheid. So he pushed Cranston, who was in California, to come up with something that would be palatable to critics of apartheid but would also have a chance of getting Reagan's signature.

The limited sanctions ultimately imposed by Reagan closely resembled what Cranston and several others had pushed through the Senate.

Long a critic of former Filipino President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Cranston helped pass a bill in 1984 that tied future military aid for the Philipines to a guarantee of free elections and improvements in human rights. Warburg was especially valuable then because Cranston had just returned to Senate business after ending his ill-fated presidential campaign.

'Don't Always Agree'

"He's never let me down, but Jerry and I don't always agree," Cranston said in an interview. "Jerry suggested, for example, that we seek a compromise recently on the proposed arms sale to the Saudis. But I won't do it because the Saudis have not helped the peace process and they are the enemy of our No. 1 ally in the Middle East (Israel)."

Normally a very careful politician, Cranston embarrassed himself recently when he all but blamed Marcos for the murder of a Filipino businessman in Glendale. The police eventually charged the man's son with the slaying.

Jerry Warburg's advice was not a phone call away in that instance. He was out of the country and could not be reached by Cranston.

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