EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Newman, one of the greatest actors of his generation and an ardent advocate for peace and progressive causes, died Friday at 83. A great friend and supporter of The Nation, Newman also was an occasional contributor to the magazine. In this piece, written in August 2000, he cast the nuclear arms race in characteristically sardonic and deeply personal terms. We will miss him.
My grandson, Pete, is simultaneously perusing the New York Times and playing chess with our next-door neighbor, who chortles and takes Pete’s rook.
Pete is four and a half and is about to overtake Leonardo da Vinci, both in art and science. The neighbor is 43, an ex-intelligence officer and a spokesperson for the Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. He outweighs Pete by 191 pounds but, as noted, is no match for the kid upstairs, if you get my meaning.
The big guy captures Pete’s rook. “You are weak on defense, kiddo,” he chortles.
Pete slithers his queen across the board. “Checkmate,” says the kid. “You are weak on defense, here and at work.” He points to the headline:
Key Missile Parts Are Left Untested as Booster Fails
“His team just flunked yet another of many missile tests, Gramps. A leaky defense umbrella, if ever I saw one.”
“We only flunked the first, most proven, reliable stage of the test, kiddo,” says the big guy. “The most sophisticated, complicated, experimental, unsuccessful, least likely elements of the test never got a chance to fail, so how do you know they wouldn’t succeed? As Defense Secretary Cohen said, ‘The test was a disappointment, but it was one of those failures that was at least expected.'”
“Congressman Curt Weldon was on the Lehrer NewsHour,” I venture. “He bulged his eyes and pumped his face full of blood and shouted at me through the television, ‘How much is New York City worth?!! Is it $60 billion or $100 billion?!!!'”
“That question is a mindless and clever smokescreen,” says Pete. “The real question is, Are they playing a joke on New York by suggesting that $60 billion will buy protection for the city? If I were a cynical little boy, I’d say those billions will buy job protection for incumbent congressmen and zip for the guy in a taxi.”
“You really know how to hurt a fella, don’t you, kid?” says the big guy.
“You guys rigged the only successful missile test. You put a beacon in the decoy. Why don’t you put a beacon in Congressman Weldon’s nose? Maybe you could rig the next election for him as well.”
“Maybe what I could do,” the big guy speculates, “is to have my guys set up the target again at Vandenberg, the interceptor at Kwajalein, start the countdown again–ten, nine, eight, y’know, get to ONE and then–I shut down the power! That way nothing fails, fizzles or flops. Everything will be A-OK.”
“Power on or power off,” says the kid, “I’ll bet you set off the beacons in the noses of Boeing, Raytheon, TRW and Lockheed Martin that start up the giant vacuum cleaners that suck money out of the Treasury.”
The big guy is not listening. He is ecstatic.
“We can bypass all testing, all budgets, the whole system. If things get nuts we just push the ON button!”
The kid heads upstairs.
“Why don’t you call Toys “R” Us?” he says. “See what they have in their arsenal.”
The big guy’s eyes go glassy with the possibilities.