One of the first encounters between Sam Nunn and Ted Turner dates back to the days when Atlanta TV consisted of three network stations, a fuzzy dab of public broadcasting, and a UHF station called WTBS, which had just begun pushing out its signal nationwide via satellite.
“I was over there one day, doing an interview. Ted came and grabbed me,” said Nunn, then a young U.S. senator. “I went up there to his office, and he had all these pictures of him and [Fidel] Castro spear-fishing underwater.”
Only a few years earlier, the CIA had dedicated itself to the assassination of the Cuban premier, considering everything from poisoned cigars to exploding seashells. “And Ted was down there with a spear gun,” Nunn mused.
WTBS, dubbed the Superstation, would inspire CNN. And that took its creator, dubbed “Captain Outrageous,” to Washington on lobbying trips. “I’ll never forget taking Ted around to meet some of the people, probably on the [Senate]commerce committee – there were about three of them. And I introduced him, because he was from Georgia,” Nunn recalled.
Turner dropped to his knees, placed his hands together in mock supplication, and loudly pleaded for some long forgotten legislation: “Please! Please!”
“I’d never seen anything like that,” Nunn said.
Now more than 20 years removed from the U.S. Senate, Nunn, his aide and I were in a quiet room late Friday afternoon. Above, a day-long celebration of his 80th birthday had just finished. His career as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee had been thoroughly reviewed. Ambitions fulfilled and unfulfilled had been chewed over in front of several hundred friends.
But the West Peachtree Street event was something else, too — a quiet marking of one of the most consequential partnerships ever to rise out of Midtown Atlanta. For it was Turner who first bankrolled Nunn’s second career as a watchman over a disintegrating Soviet Union and the world’s loose nukes.
Throughout that Friday, Turner sat quietly in the audience, front and center. Approaching his own 80th birthday, he is no longer the Mouth of the South. This was only Turner’s second public appearance since announcing, a few days earlier via CBS News, that he had Lewy body dementia.
“Tired. Exhausted. That’s the main symptoms. And forgetfulness,” Turner explained on TV that Sunday morning.
Five days later, at the Nunn event, a silent Turner would tread up and down the aisle between breaks, always accompanied. But the man whose famously impolitic voice once boomed across ballrooms and continents was now limited to a few soft handshakes and an occasional thumbs-up.
In one of the afternoon’s ironies, Turner was seated not far from Shirley Miller, widow of Zell Miller. The former governor died in March of the same disease that Turner now wrestles with.
Once Turner had departed, and while Nunn’s less consequential guests closed the day with ice cream sundaes in the hall above, Nunn recounted how a quiet, center-right Democrat teamed up with a loud, liberal media mogul to save the world.
The year was 2000. Turner had cashed in, selling most of his properties to the behemoth that would become AOL/Time Warner. He was one of the richest men on the planet. Three years earlier, he promised (and would deliver) $1 billion to a United Nations foundation of his own creation.
That February, Turner caught an episode of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” in which four-star Gen. Eugene Habiger, only recently retired as head of U.S. nuclear forces, and his Russian counterpart declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union had meant the world was overstocked with nuclear weaponry.
“Senior military generals responsible for nuclear forces are advocating, more vocally, more vehemently, than our politicians, to get down to lower and lower weapons,” Habiger said.
Turner was alarmed, and wanted to get involved. An aide pointed him to the recently retired Nunn, who was turning a lawyerly dollar in the nearby offices of the prestigious King & Spalding firm. A breakfast meeting was called to address “this nuclear business.”
“I could tell right off, Ted wanted to get rid of every nuclear weapon in the world, immediately,” Nunn said. “And he wanted that to be our platform. I thought that was not wise or appropriate. I thought we had to do a whole lot of work before we ever got to that stage.”
They studied the topic for a good six months to get a handle on the problem — and each other. As the Journal-Constitution at the time would note: “Turner is known as bold and unconventional, Nunn as cautious and deliberate.”
“What we determined was that we had so much to do, it didn’t matter whether we agreed on the end point,” Nunn said Friday. “I’m still of the opinion that you’ve got to do it with Russia and with China, and with verification. And I think Ted has that viewpoint now, too.”
The result was the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization dedicated to the prevention of “catastrophic attacks and accidents with weapons of mass destruction and disruption — nuclear, biological, radiological and chemical.”
General Habiger was placed on the board. This was serious stuff. Nunn and Turner were listed as co-founders, but there is no doubt about who should be credited with NTI’s birth. “It was Ted’s idea,” Nunn said.
There were documentaries to be made, and public campaigns to be waged. And there was direct, non-governmental action. In 2005, both Nunn and Turner found themselves in Kazakhstan, eyeing the NTI-financed “blending down” of enough highly enriched uranium to make dozens of nuclear bombs.
Though he is now taking a lower profile, Nunn would become organization’s face and voice. In 2007, a New York Times magazine piece was headlined, “The Stuff Sam Nunn’s Nightmares Are Made of.”
Yet in 2001, at the outset, the man with the money was the lead dog. “Turner launches war on nuclear weapons,” was the Journal-Constitution headline.
“Turner has committed a minimum of $250 million over the next five years to pay for the project,” the article promised.
Um, about that.
They can laugh at it now. Turner made his promise with AOL/Time Warner stock, which peaked in 1999 at $90 a share. But by 2003, as NTI was just getting off the ground, the stock had plummeted to $15 a share.
What was once $250 million ultimately became perhaps $70 million. “We had to go on fundraising, because Ted was still supportive, but he wasn’t going to put up that kind of money. When you get down your last billion, it makes you nervous,” Nunn said.
One senses that a great deal of high-dollar, locker-room style ribbing has occurred over the past 17 years – given that Nunn left the Senate in part to escape the constant fundraising. “Ted’s been a terrific partner, in spite of the fact that his stock went way down,” his co-founder jabbed.
Billionaire Warren Buffet was brought in to fill in the gap, and now puts in about $13 million a year in grants and matching funds. “Ted still contributes. He puts in about $1 million a year,” Nunn said.
Turner still attends every NTI board meeting. “The board meets twice a year. But I’ll go out and spend a weekend with him in Montana in the summer, and I spend a weekend with him quail hunting,” Nunn said.
I asked the former senator when he first spotted a decline in Turner’s health. “Probably three years ago,” Nunn answered. “He started talking about it, maybe a year and a half ago.
“Ted used to be very active on the board, and when he got this, he was really quiet,” Nunn said. “But I would say in the last year, he has not declined. He’s leveled off.”
Nunn has his hopes. Jimmy Carter, now 94, survived his bout with brain cancer four years ago. Maybe science can save Ted Turner, too.
If not, then you and I will be obliged to do the remembering for him, about that time when a brash Southern billionaire and a conservative Southern politician, who might have agreed on little else, decided that the world shouldn’t be allowed to blow itself up.