Dealing a heavy blow to his party's efforts to regain power on Capitol Hill, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) announced Monday that he will end a legislative career that has spanned a quarter-century of change in the Democratic Party, in the South and in the Senate as an institution.
Nunn, a leading voice for conservative Democrats and his party's premier spokesman on defense issues, joins a stampede of Democrats--mostly moderates and Southerners--leaving Congress next year. More than half of the Senate Democrats up for reelection in 1996 have announced plans to retire, many of them from seats that will be hard for their party to hold.
Nunn's retirement marks the passing of an era, as he prepares to leave a political world far different from the one that first sent him to the Senate in 1972, when the South reliably elected Democrats, when Congress was less partisan, when the seniority system rewarded men like Nunn who moved cautiously to secure their power bases and legislative niches.
But the 57-year-old senator portrayed his decision to retire as a personal one, not as a product of disillusionment with the changed political world. "I know in my heart it is time to follow a new course," Nunn said during a press conference in Atlanta. "Today I look forward to more freedom, to more flexibility, more time with my family."
Nunn did not discuss his specific plans for life after the Senate, but said that he hopes to remain active in public policy. He did not rule out a future run for political office.
"At this point in time, I think this will be the end of my legislative career," Nunn said, "but I do not in any way foreclose on some other endeavor in political life at some point in time."
Nunn told reporters that he does not want to stay in the Senate "until called back by the grim voter or the Grim Reaper. I wanted to make sure I don't stay beyond the time that I can approach every day with the zest and enthusiasm that's required to do the job."
Indeed, while Nunn remains one of the most respected members of the Senate, some analysts said that he may have passed the peak of his influence within the Senate and the Democratic Party. The defense issues that are his stock in trade have faded in importance since the end of the Cold War. While Nunn was frequently rumored to be a candidate for top Cabinet posts and even for President, he never pursued those paths to greater prominence.
"Democrats like to point to him as someone who had respect but they certainly weren't ready to follow him," said Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution think tank here.
In the wake of his retirement announcement, Nunn drew praise from Democrats and Republicans alike.
"Although Sam and I did not agree on every issue," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), "we were able to reach across party lines on many occasions in the interest of a stronger and safer America."
Although Nunn was not always in sync with the Clinton Administration--he opposed the effort to lift the ban on gays in the military, for example--the President responded to Nunn's announcement with praise. Clinton cited Nunn's efforts "to move beyond established political rhetoric to new policies that reward responsibility and work to strengthen families and communities."
After months of private agonizing about his future, Nunn had been expected to announce his decision to retire last Tuesday, the same day that the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. But with the personal encouragement of Clinton, Nunn postponed his press conference rather than compete for attention in the post-verdict media onslaught.
His decision brings the number of Senate Democratic retirements to eight--more than half of the 15 Democrats whose terms expire after this Congress. The Democratic retirees include only two traditional liberals, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and Paul Simon of Illinois. The others are all Southerners or moderates: Bill Bradley of New Jersey, J. James Exon of Nebraska, Howell Heflin of Alabama, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and David Pryor of Arkansas.
Like many of the other retiring Senate Democrats, Nunn leaves a seat that was considered safe for the Democrats only because he held it. Many analysts predicted that Nunn's seat will go the way of so many other seats in the Georgia delegation, which has seen a dramatic shift in favor of the GOP in recent years. Among the Republicans seen as possible candidates for the seat are Johnny Isakson, a state senator; Guy Millner, a businessman who narrowly lost a race against Gov. Zell Miller in 1994, and three congressmen--Mac Collins, Jack Kingston and John Linder.
Among Democrats, Georgia Secretary of State Max Cleland, a former head of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, is considered a likely candidate, although some Democrats may lean on Miller to run.
"There has been general talk that there is only one Democrat in the state who can hold on to that seat; that is Miller," said Bill Shipp, editor of a newsletter about Georgia politics. "That is not a theory I subscribe to, however. I believe that Max Cleland . . . will be a formidable candidate."
In any case, Democrats acknowledged that they face a tough fight that would have been unthinkable in the one-party South of a generation ago.
"I wish we still had a solid Democratic South but we don't and we never will again," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.
When Nunn came to the Senate in 1973, more than two-thirds of the members of Congress from the South were Democrats; now, there are 77 Republicans and 70 Democrats from the region.
Nunn's focus on defense matters has its roots, in part, in political and family tradition. Nunn's great-uncle, Carl Vinson, was a longtime chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Nunn won the Senate seat once held by Richard Russell, who had been chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 1987, Nunn became Armed Services Committee chairman himself.
Nunn's meticulous expertise won him the respect of his fellow Democrats, even though he was often more pro-Pentagon than many in his party. He was a leading Democratic supporter of then-President Ronald Reagan's military buildup in the 1980s, helping to rescue the B-2 bomber and the anti-missile Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as "Star Wars," at crucial junctures. However, in 1991, he joined a majority of his party in opposing immediate military action in the Persian Gulf.
Nunn rarely took the lead on non-defense issues. But he took a big step in trying to steer his party as a whole away from its liberal roots in 1985 when he helped found the Democratic Leadership Council to provide a home for moderate-to-conservative Democrats. Nunn's retirement is a big blow to that wing of the party.
"It's tempting to say, 'Will the last moderate Democrat out the door please turn out the lights?' " said Harrison Hickman, Nunn's pollster.
Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, said that Nunn's departure could exacerbate the gap between Clinton's efforts to chart a more moderate course and the generally more liberal Democrats in Congress.
"At the very time when most of the country is interested in sensible, centrist candidates, in the Democratic Party, the center is falling out," From said. "The President in many ways will run alone as he runs to the center."
Speaking to reporters after his announcement, Nunn indicated support for key elements of the GOP legislative agenda, but he warned that Republicans who now control Congress may be pushing too far.
"They're heading down the right road by recognizing there's too much federal government . . . but there are a lot of red lights and caution lights up there and they're ignoring them," Nunn said. "Changes need to be made [with] sensitivity and with prudence. If they don't do that . . . their 'contract with America' will be a renewable lease with voters rather than a permanent lease."
Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.