Fumbling The Football: Now It Can Be Told

Destiny is not a matter of chance--it is a matter of choice," President Bush quoted William Jennings Bryan as he looked into the TV camera. And who could blame him if the faint smile he allowed himself was one of relief. But off-screen, a Navy commander still cradled The Black Bag: the nuclear football with the playbooks needed for the Armageddon Bowl. And the story of this particular football is not exactly a paradigm of command and control.

Inside the bag is a set of notebooks. One, running about 30 pages, offers a menu of nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union. In a time of crisis, the president would thumb through the book and pick his attack, using a code on a laminated card he keeps in his wallet to identify himself to the Pentagon. How it would work in practice is another matter. Last June, after a tennis match in Los Angeles, the president jumped into his limousine and ordered the driver to hit the road, leaving the Navy commander and the black bag behind. Taking off in hot pursuit, the frantic officer and several Secret Service men roared down Sunset Boulevard. It took them 15 minutes to catch up with Bush.

Retired Navy Capt, Edward Beach invented the football during the Eisenhower administration. Actually, he devised a set of footballs containing the presidential orders for a nuclear attack and planned to have them scattered around the country. The rest is history. For more than 30 years new presidents have been given briefings-they last about 15 minutes--on the football. But most show little interest--not even John Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. As McGeorge Bundy, his national-security adviser, explains it, "He was not the type of man to inquire about how to drop a bomb."

During the LBJ years, Bill Gulley, a former director of the White House Military Office, was shocked to discover that six months' worth of changes in launch orders were not in the football. They were stacked in the White House basement. When Brent Scowcroft, then Gerald Ford's national-security adviser, went to Blair House to brief Jimmy Carter on The Bag, he looked in and found an empty beer can and a condom used for horses, which Gulley says he planted as a joke. Scowcroft removed the books and calmly did the briefing. Carter was none' the wiser.

When Carter took trips home to Plains, Ga., the aide with the football sometimes slept in Americus, 10 miles away. Before the Carter administration the president's laminated nuclear ID card was kept in the bag; the strategic thinking was that the president might misplace it if he kept it in his wallet. The caution turned out to be well founded. After John W. Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan, FBI agents gathering evidence in the emergency room carried off the president's pants with his wallet and the card.

If this isn't hair-raising enough, Mikhail Gorbachev also has a football. His comes with an electronic device that generates a launch code. The coup plotters nabbed the football along with the chief of state. But not to worry. Gennadi Pavlov, a former colonel in the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, revealed that loyal officers had secretly sabotaged the electronic device.

That sounded a lot more like chance than choice to some people. Even before the president's speech, Congress had ordered the Pentagon to review its command and control of nuclear weapons. Sen. Joseph Biden proposed last week that the United States and the Soviet Union establish a joint commission to study ways of preventing accidental launches. "Thousands of missiles poised for quick launch are relics of a political age that no longer exists," says Bruce Blair, an arms strategist from the Brookings Institution. Soviet leaders are now spending a lot more of their time reading the Federalist Papers than they used to, but it probably won't hurt for everyone to pay a little more attention to football.