Washington Post

Concepcion Picciotto

Questioning Orthodoxy

By Mary McGrory
The Washington Post Company
Sunday, February 8, 1998; Page C01

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bill Clinton's chum, cheerleader and character reference, said he would not "presume to give advice at all." Given the warmth of their relationship, though, Blair could suggest to the embattled president that he step out and do something wonderful, like leading the small but burgeoning crusade to ban nuclear weapons.

The phrase "weapons of mass destruction" was much in play at their joint press conference Friday, where the president artfully dodged all questions about Monica Lewinsky and pictured himself as a rule follower while painting prosecutor Kenneth Starr as a scofflaw. It was the kind of performance that proves once again that Clinton is a peerless mudder -- a horse who runs best on a muddy track. The president was reflective, rueful, humorous, shameless and determined. He will never resign, he said.

The horrors of "weapons of mass destruction" came in for much notice with regard to Saddam Hussein, but no mention was made of the most devastating devices of all: the nuclear bombs still infesting the planet and inviting maniacs to find an excuse to use them.

Blair's Britain once had a strong and vocal Ban the Bomb constituency. It was the mantra of a major wing of Blair's Labor Party. On this side of the Atlantic, the cause is represented by a woman in Lafayette Park just across from the White House. Concepcion Picioto [sic] has been sheltering under plastic and a sign that reads, "Ban all Nuclear Weapons or Have a Nice Doomsday." An increasing number of notables agrees with her, and the issue is moving out of the park and onto the platter of world issues.

Jonathan Schell, the brilliant author of "The Fate of the Earth" (a glimpse into the hell of nuclear war), wrote in calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons in the current issue of the Nation: "The barrier of impossibility has fallen. The Soviet Union has unexpectedly -- almost magically -- cleared itself out of the way."

A growing number of dignitaries -- retired military officers, former presidents, prime ministers and high government officials -- agree. At a National Press Club lunch last week, former Sen. Alan Cranston -- a notorious, lifelong peacenik -- read off the list of 117 people from 46 countries who have signed up, including Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev. Conspicuous among them is retired Gen. George Lee Butler, who was a cardinal in what he calls the "nuclear priesthood." He was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Command -- the country's nuclear forces -- from 1991 until he retired in 1994.

At the lunch, Gen. Butler made a powerful speech challenging the conventional wisdom of nuclear deterrence, which was upheld by a Presidential Directive Decision leaked last fall. The general, a slight man with rosy cheeks and bleak blue eyes, writes his own prose with a biblical beat and thunder. Example: "We should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestation."

The question period that followed Butler's speech illustrated the difficulty of mounting an attack on nuclear orthodoxy. It is the inside-outside dilemma so bitterly familiar from the Vietnam War. Dissenters in high places cannot speak out without giving up office. But when they do quit and begin to inveigh against the ills they helped to perpetrate, their motives are challenged.

One questioner asked the general: "Shouldn't you have spoken up earlier? Don't you feel guilty?"

"This is not about guilt," the general replied. "It's about the future."

He told of having consulted Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during Vietnam. McNamara, another belated truth teller, waited 24 years to confess that the war he managed had been unwinnable all along. McNamara told him, "We were who we were and where we were."

Blair could have told his American host that a majestic issue could be a plank for him to walk over the muck that is rising in the Oval Office. It could cause generations to call him blessed, which they don't seem likely to do, the way things are going.