Former Nebraska Sen. Jim Exon Dies at 83

Posted June 13, 2005 at 6:46pm

Jim Exon, the former three-term U.S. Senator and two-term governor from Nebraska, died June 10 in Lincoln, Neb. He was 83.

The Nebraska Democrat, hailed Monday on the Senate Floor by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as “one of the most dominant figures” in his state’s history, will lie in state at the Nebraska state Capitol from noon to 8 p.m. Central time today. His funeral will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday; a private burial will follow.

Exon died Friday of natural causes at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Neb., according to a statement released by hospital spokeswoman Lori Paulsen on behalf of the family.

Through his work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Exon helped shape U.S. military policy during the final years of the Cold War.

Ex-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who served with Exon on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Exon a “common sense leader for a sensible foreign policy and a sound fiscal policy.”

“I had an opportunity to talk to him by phone recently and even in his struggle, he was upbeat and up-to-date on current events,” Nunn added.

Arnold Punaro, Nunn’s staff director on the Armed Services Committee, remembers Exon as someone with a great sense of humor who also was a “very diligent subcommittee chairman” and a staunch defender of the B-2 stealth bomber.

“I think history will show that holding onto the B-2 was the right thing to do,” Punaro said. “If it wasn’t for Sen. Exon’s leadership on that issue, we probably wouldn’t have the B-2 today.”

After retiring from the Senate in 1996, Exon served from 1998 to 1999 on the Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government to Combat the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The panel, chaired by former CIA Director John Deutch, informed Congress in 1999 that the U.S. government was not effectively organized to combat WMD proliferation and that it lacked a coordinated, comprehensive approach to the problem.

Deutch said Exon understood the risks posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world.

“He was one of the leaders of the commission,” said Deutch. “He wanted to insist that people put the highest priority on it, from the president right on down.”

Suzanne Spaulding, the panel’s executive director, said Exon, as a former governor from middle America, brought an invaluable “outside the Beltway” perspective and a prescient focus on biological terrorism at a time when most of the focus was on nuclear proliferation.

“He had a particular interest in making sure that our troops had effective and workable protective gear,” she said.

When the group advised Congress to take what counter-terrorism tsar Richard Clarke was doing at the time and to elevate that to a more senior official who would report directly to the president, Exon went one step further and recommended that the vice president should be the one in charge of overseeing the effort to stop the spread of WMDs.

“He wanted it to be somebody who could knock heads, including the heads of departments, to get them to work together,” Spaulding said.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who served as director of the state department of insurance when Exon was governor, remembers Exon’s hand-written messages and phone calls in the night.

“Once you worked for him, you always worked for him,” Nelson said.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who was talked into running for the Senate by Exon in 1988, credits Exon for playing a big role in winning the Cold War, improving America’s rural policies and fighting for a decent safety net.

But Kerrey, who is now the president of the New School University in New York City, thinks Exon will be remembered most for the way he remained humble after reaching high office and the personal contributions he made.

“He was very much like the character Jimmy Stewart played in the film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’” said Kerrey. “I’m just one of hundreds of people whose lives he changed.”

Nelson credits Exon’s success in a state as Republican as Nebraska to his common touch.

“He understood that this is a populist state, not a partisan state,” Nelson said.