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Alan Cranston | The Nation

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Alan Cranston

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After retiring from the Senate in 1993, Alan Cranston, who died on New Year's Eve of the new millennium in the home of his son Kim, began a new career that was as important as the one he left behind as a 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 longstanding. 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 Appeal for Responsible Security, Appeal for Responsible Security, which calls for abolition and steps toward that end, and was signed, at Cranston's urging, by such notable people as Paul Nitze, Gen. Charles Horner and President Jimmy 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 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 was just 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--that sometimes I thought, "Well, a man of his eminence doesn't have to attend to every last word of every inconsequential meeting"--only to hear him 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, unencrusted 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 keener 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.

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