Jeffrey LewisArnie Kanter, 1945-2010

The late, great Arnie Kanter, attempts to explain nuclear weapons policy to a very dim student.

Arnie Kanter passed away over the weekend. I am disconsolate.

When I arrived at the New America Foundation, my first task was to convince Arnie to co-chair our Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative with Mort Halperin. Little did I know that they were old friends and that this would be an easy task.

In fact, I was terrified to call up a former Number 3 official in the State Department, and then Principal at the Scowcroft Group, in an attempt to convince him we might be able to do something interesting with his very valuable time.

Of course, I needn’t have worried. If you knew Arnie, you know he didn’t take himself nearly so seriously. He would later reflect on his first day in that august position as Undersecretary for Political Affairs by explaining that, on the day he was sworn in, both James Baker and Lawrence Eagelburger were out for one reason or another — leaving the newly sworn in Undersecretary as the Acting Secretary. As he told the story, when he got home, the conversation with his wife, Anne, went something like:

How did your first day go, Mr. Under Secretary?

Mr. Acting Secretary!

That’s nice Mr. Acting Secretary, now please take out the trash.

That was Arnie. He spends a day as Acting Secretary and it becomes a set-up for a gag about domestic bliss.

Once I had found the courage to call Arnie, he readily agreed to co-chair our effort. None of us had any idea what we were getting into — a two-year effort to unite a very fractious group of policy wonks that Arnie, with just the lightest touch of sarcasm, called “our merry band.”

Indeed, there were moments when it seemed like the only thing that we could agree on within the group was a shared respect, admiration and affection for Arnie. It says something, given Arnie’s formidable intellect, that it was his sense of proportion and humor that I came appreciate most during a series of dinner meetings that sometimes turned for the worse.

Over the course of the past year, Arnie and Mort churned out a series of memoranda designed to provide advice for the new Administration on a range of issues, from START negotiations to declaratory policy. Watching them reminisce, joke and argue — and then trying to write it up — was a challenge, but ultimately extraordinarily rewarding.

You could convince Arnie to change his mind — though more often than not, I found he was the one with the convincing argument. I still remember him bristling at the idea of “reducing the role of nuclear weapons” — the role was declining, he argued, because of external factors. Our goal, he said, is to align our forces, policies and posture with that reality. It was a little observation with big implications. And I think he was right.

Almost every day I find myself repeating something Arnie said, though with a little less eloquence and wit than he did. Those little reminders will make me miss him all the more.

I suspect that there are many, many people whose lives Arnie touched in the same way he touched mine. If you would like to make a donation in memory of Arnie, his family asks that you consider Clearbrook, where his brother lives, or the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.