By Maria Saporta
For former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, Monday was a “this is your life” experience.
The setting was the Founder’s Day Allen Prize Symposium presented by Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. Nunn is the first recipient of the Allen Prize, which is named after former Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr.
The two-day event began Monday with several sessions based on Nunn’s interests and past experiences — from his days as chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to his current role as co-chairman and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
A highlight was when Bob Schieffer, CBS News Chief and host of Face the Nation, interviewed Nunn about current events as well as how Washington, D.C. has changed over the years.
Schieffer, who has known Nunn for about 40 years, repeated a statement that the former senator had made: “I never accomplished one thing in the Senate without the help of someone from the other side, from the other party.”
Then Schieffer asked Nunn about the tragedy in Japan and what impact it could have on the nuclear power industry.
Nunn said that Japan appeared to survive the earthquake “pretty well,” but it was “the tsunami that really did surprise” the Japanese. “It wasn’t part of the worst case scenario,” Nunn said.
No matter what, Nunn said he is still in favor of nuclear power, and that it “has to be part of the overall equation” as alternative sources of energy are developed.
“The future of nuclear power definitely will be affected by Japan,” Nunn said, adding that there will probably more scrutiny and more regulations with back up systems upon back up systems. As to the dangers of nuclear radiation, Nunn said much will depend on wind conditions, and that it can stay in the atmosphere “for some time.”
Both Schieffer and Nunn talked about how the situation in Japan has shifted focus away from the problems in the Middle East.
“Television can only handle one story at a time,” Schieffer said.
As tense as the situation is in Libya, Nunn said it was important that the United States continues to monitor the situation in Egypt.
“We have got to keep our eye on Egypt,” Nunn said. “That’s going to determine what’s going to happen” in the Middle East. He added that if the United States gets “it right in Egypt, it can change the situation in the Middle East.”
Schieffer then asked Nunn if Congress has now become “dysfunctional.”
Nunn joked and said it was important to reflect that Schieffer called Congress dysfunctional and that Nunn “did not agree with him.”
The problem in Congress today is that “fund-raising is out of control,” and that it discourages members of both parties to work together, Nunn said.
During the Q&A period, former CNN President Tom Johnson asked Nunn that since Defense Secretary Robert Gates is stepping down, “under what condition would you accept becoming Secretary of Defense?”
“Right now, I’m not on the short-list, the medium list or the long list,” Nunn said, adding that he likes his ability to be independent in his current role. “I’m 72 years of age. We need a new generation coming on.”
Earlier in the day, six people who used to work for Nunn in different capacities shared stories of their experiences with their former boss.
Afterwards, Nunn then turned the spotlight on others — the unsung heroes.
His daughter, Michelle Nunn, then introduced four of those unsung heroes:
Mackenzie Bearup, a 17-year-old student who suffers from “complex regional pain syndrome,” a neurological condition that causes intense pain. The one way she could get her mind off her pain was reading a good book. She then started a non-profit organization — Sheltering Books — that collected books for children’s shelters.
The second unsung hero was Anthony Webb, founder and CEO of Boys Speak out, an organization that helps build communications and community among middle and high school students.
The last two unsung heroes were the father and son team — Pat Pattillo and his son, Bob Pattillo. The elder Pattillo was honored for starting a foundation in Costa Rica that has helped offer better housing, health services and educational opportunities for residents of the Guanacaste region.
The younger Pattillo has spent 12 years working in microfinance and social impact investing in Hyderabad, India. He established Grey Ghost Ventures and the Grey Ghost Microfinance Fund.
Nunn, who is receiving $100,000 as part of the Allen Prize, said he would give a financial gift to each of those four unsung heroes. About half will go to them and the other half will go towards helping fund an endowed Nunn professorship at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.
Nunn will actually get the award on Tuesday at a luncheon event at the Biltmore. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed will make remarks, and Nunn will give the “Founder’s Day” address.