Alan Cranston may not have been the only retired congressman who wanted to save the world. But he was the only one I ever met who spent his last years trying to do it. Born at the beginning of World War I, he died on the literal eve of the new millennium for which, he said when I last saw him, he had considerable hopes and greater fears. Particularly when it came to the administration‘s missile-defense proposals and rogue-nation proliferation.
”In some ways, we’re in even more danger now than we were during the Cold War,“ Cranston said. ”We still have to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us.“
Angular and pale in the dark-red sweats in which he still regularly ran, with wide, protuberant ears that still missed nothing you said, Cranston was more involved than ever in the life-or-death idealism of international peace studies in the year of his death. He was frequently absent in the cause of peace from his large but modest family home on its unmown acres, just a mile or so south of the far-famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. On one of these ventures of his, Cranston managed to persuade more than 60 top military leaders to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He still knew how to lobby.
When he wasn‘t off lecturing on the need to end the arms race, Cranston worked in his dark, cool home office. Periodicals were everywhere. Books were hastily shelved from floor to ceiling; a polished hardwood celebrity desk was the only uncluttered space. Multiple fax machines and modems kept chirping away as we talked in what felt more like sanctum of a world titan like George Soros than that of an 85-year-old who left office eight years ago in what majority public opinion might still consider disgrace.
Obviously, however, a great many people still had much to say to Alan Cranston, and he still had a lot to say to them. The electronic links never stopped dinging or ticking in the hour that we talked.
It was easy to remember the earlier, senatorial Cranston, whom I’d first got to know in his well-fought last Senate campaign against pioneer Siliconaire Ed Zschau in 1986. What‘s happened to the affable, brilliant Zschau anyway? His party needs him badly. The campaign was fraught with goofy, down-home stunts like dueling alfresco pancake breakfasts (”Cranston waffles,“ ”Zschau flips“) in Rancho Park. Throughout, Cranston sustained the level of supercompetitive friendliness he must have shown as a Stanford sprinter. His was a big win, a good win, and it would have been better for his reputation if he’d lost. For somehow, unlike fellow Keating Fivers John Glenn and John McCain, Cranston never completely recovered his good standing after taking Charles Keating Jr.‘s money, just as that S&L supershark piled up the dubious deals that would cost taxpayers and unwary investors hundreds of millions.
Cranston told me repeatedly that the Keating funds he’d accepted hadn‘t gone into his own pocket or campaign, that they’d gone into a youth-focused get-out-the-vote drive that Cranston backed. This fact is often overlooked by Cranston critics, but it also remained true that the vote which Keating himself was seeking was not Gen-X‘s but Cranston’s. Accordingly, Cranston and his four splattered compeers sustained the rare distinction of an official Senate reprimand.
With the end of his electoral career, Cranston re-dedicated himself to keeping the world from killing itself off. He put together the Global Security Institute to carry the idea of the comity of peaceful nations into the post–Cold War era. GSI wasn‘t the only peace-focused organization he involved himself in. Cranston said he got the idea of helping put together the Gorbachev Institute after the last Soviet premier (who’d become a personal friend in the 1980s) stepped down.
”Such was the nature of the Soviet Union that it had never created orderly retirement programs for its leaders,“ Cranston recalled. ”So Mikhail Gorbachev was left with a $40-a-month pension.“ The former senator helped the former USSR leader‘s cause by soliciting contributions from various national and international foundations and became its U.S. leader.
But Cranston had been an internationalist long before he was seated in the Senate in 1968, even before he oversaw the re-creation of the state Democratic Party in the mid-1950s. A Hearst correspondent on the verge of WWII, Cranston was an early enemy of fascism, and bore the distinction of having been successfully sued by Adolf Hitler to repress Cranston’s publication of an unauthorized, unexpurgated edition of Mein Kampf.
At the war‘s end, Cranston was one of a stellar clutch of educated young WWII veterans who strongly supported the creation of a peacetime United Nations. His marvelous and now almost forgotten 1945 book, The Killing of the Peace, is probably the best account ever written of the reactionary Senate fight to keep the U.S. out of the 1919 League of Nations after WWI. ”I wrote this book to prevent the same thing from happening with the U.S. and the U.N. in 1946,“ Cranston said. ”And in the process, I read and fell in love with some of the Democratic senators [of that time] as they orated in favor of the ideal of world organization.“
Before long, though, Cranston, along with some of his progressive fellow veterans, began expressing their disappointment in the new U.N. Charter’s myriad, sovereignty-inspired weaknesses. ”My guiding light became Grenville Clark, the thinker who wrote World Peace Through World Law,“ Cranston said. Clark‘s huge tome, in its 1958 edition, consists in large part of hundreds of pages of new agreements that would, if enacted, empower the U.N. as a supreme world authority. You could almost call it a legal plug-in for limited world government.
Cranston was initially a little reluctant to open up regarding his early ideal, which has acquired over the years a somewhat eccentric reputation. ”But I guess that if Ronald Reagan found it okay to join the World Federalist Association, there’s no reason for me to deny it.“ Actually, Cranston became WFA president around the time Dutch signed on. Albert Einstein was another member. Dwight Eisenhower supported WFA until it sank from general view with the advent of the Korean War and McCarthy era. Cranston said he still supported the ideal of uniform world law, and could cite off the top of his head a laundry list of U.N. improvements he‘d like to see, including a better system of proportional representation for members, an independent, full-time peacekeeping force and an international criminal court. By pleasing coincidence, the Clinton administration officially accepted the last proposal just before Cranston’s passing.
But to the end of his life, Cranston was apparently obsessed by the obdurate conundrum of nuclear disarmament in the post–Cold War world. ”It begins with the U.S. being overwhelmingly the biggest nuclear power,“ he said. ”If we don‘t set a major example, who will? Even among those who agree [that we must start disarming], the how-to of it is not discussed.“
As one might expect, the former senator was particularly irked by recurring bipartisan proposals for a megabillion-dollar new star-wars defense program aimed at the presumed missile capacities of a handful of impoverished rogue states.
”Why should South Korea build missiles to send bombs to Washington when it can do that via Federal Express?“ Cranston asked. ”And then no one would ever know against whom to retaliate.“