Apr 17, 2007

Remembering Paul Leventhal

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

He was both commanding general and frontline soldier, dug into his foxhole and ready for battle at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace forum on the topic that was his constant war and fervent cause: Halting nuclear proliferation in the terrorist age.

Paul Leventhal, a one-time newspaper reporter who went on to be a doer and shaker, was dressed in his daily combat uniform _ unremarkable tweedy jacket, unmistakable bowtie, meticulously tied. Indeed, that bowtie seemed to twitch and bristle as he muttered disapprovals, corrections and elaborations to what the speaker was saying at this 2005 forum of nuclear superstars.

Onstage, Mohamed ElBaradei was recounting the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency he famously heads. Efforts for which he and his agency had just won the Nobel peace prize.

Leventhal's view was that _ Nobel prize, Shmobel prize _ the IAEA and its director weren't doing enough. Weren't sufficiently rallying the world to halt the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, who would someday plunge the planet into nuclear disaster. Weren't sufficiently warning about the dangers of transporting plutonium, that ultimate nuclear material that, once produced, can never be destroyed. Leventhal warned almost daily that someday some plutonium will fall into terrorists' hands _ and it only takes an amount the size of a softball to make a bomb.

Timeout for a word about this self-made nuclear authority who got there via a circuitous route: Leventhal was a Newsday reporter covering Oyster Bay town politics when I joined the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper. His newspaper colleagues (me included) were frankly surprised when he quit journalism to be press secretary to Sen. Jacob Javits, R-N.Y. After all, we journalists like to say that we are the ones who make a difference by uncovering official wrongdoing and failure.

Leventhal went on to a Senate career in which he wrote the original draft of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act, helped reorganize the Atomic Energy Agency and was co-director of the Senate investigation of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. He became a lifelong opponent of nuclear power (saying reactors were vulnerable to terrorism) and the notion of Atoms for Peace (saying nations were following India's model of using a nuclear-power program to build a nuclear bomb). Then he founded the Nuclear Control Institute (a research outfit that is now a Web site). Never a split-the-difference kind of guy, Leventhal acquired admirers and critics.

Back at the Carnegie forum, at Q&A time, Leventhal was first in line. He began with deceptive restraint, congratulating ElBaradei for his prize. Then, warming to his battle, Leventhal cited spreadsheet evidence that he'd given the IAEA about Iran's failures to provide access and information. He was on a roll; the moderator gently pressed for a question (twice); Leventhal had a corker: Hoping to prod ElBaradei into publicly spotlighting Iran's nuclear ambitions and obstructionism, he asked about the IAEA's "ability to arrive promptly at the suspected sites, including Lavizan II" (a suspected Iranian nuclear site; its satellite images were on Leventhal's Web site, nci.org), to determine "whether or not the suspected activities are going on."

ElBaradei thanked Leventhal for his "kind words," then dished optimistic vagaries: "In brief, we are making good progress in Iran." Of Lavizan II, he said the IAEA "should be able to go there ... But we are moving in the right direction."

When Leventhal returned to his seat, I thought his bowtie was sparking; but it was my friend who was smoldering. He fumed at himself for not nailing ElBaradei, not forcing him to publicly indict Iran for thwarting the IAEA and the world. "Our time is running out," Leventhal whispered. "I should have done more with an opportunity like that."

What he never figured was that it was his own time that was running out. Nine months ago, when Leventhal felt in perfect health, he was diagnosed with a fast-growing, incurable cancer. On April 10, he died at home in Chevy Chase, Md.

On the day I sat down to write this column, the annual Pulitzer Prizes were announced for journalists whose newspaper work was judged to have made a difference. The thought occurs that Paul Leventhal merited a journalistic prize category all his own. By leaving our craft, he found a way to make a world of difference, fighting to safeguard our lives and our planet.