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The A-bomb Kid Runs For Congress

At twenty-four, John Aristotle Phillips has designed a nuclear weapon, published a book and flirted with Hollywood. What will he do next?

French, nuclear, test, Mururoa, French Polynesia

French nuclear test at Mururoa, French Polynesia. Circa 1970.

AFP/Getty

John Aristotle Phillips flops into a chair, opens a can of Budweiser, then casually picks at a loose thread on his faded, knee-popped overalls. “This place has always been sort of sacred ground,” he says, gesturing at the sparse but comfortable living room of his gray shingled house, overlooking Long Island Sound.

Phillips, a lean five feet nine, seems to be in good shape. His neatly trimmed black hair frames a remarkably good-looking face, dominated by sharp blue eyes. “We’ve never had a reporter here before,” he continues, practically shouting over Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen.” “We don’t even give out the phone number.” Phillips smiles. “But now I think it’s time for this kind of interview.”

Twenty-four-year-old John Phillips is no stranger to interviews. He started giving them in 1976, after he designed his atom bomb. Of course, he never actually built the bomb. His aim was to show that if an average student could design a nuclear weapon, so could an enterprising terrorist. When the press found out about his project, there were banner headlines: THE UNTHINKABLE IS REALITY, STUDENT DESIGNS A-BOMB. Everyone wanted to know where he kept it. Then People ran a profile about him. Phillips was a hot item.

Things got even hotter a few months later, when a bumbling Pakistani official tried to buy his bomb design, and Senator William Proxmire mentioned the incident in a speech on the Senate floor. Walter Cronkite aired the story. So did Barbara Walters. A Hollywood producer optioned his story for a TV movie, and William Morrow offered him a book contract. He came to be known as the A-Bomb Kid.

Like a true physics student, John developed an equation to explain his sudden popularity: He called it whoopee: “It starts when an Obscure Individual does something Creative, Courageous, Frivolous or Frightening (C2F2). The media decide that he will make Good Copy (GC). Using millions of newspapers, magazines, radios and television sets, the media form a peephole through which the public can scrutinize him. The Public’s Impression through the Media Peephole (PIMP) suddenly makes him more important than what he has done. The Obscure Individual is now a Personality.

OBSCURE INDIVIDUAL – C2F2 + GC + PIMP – PERSONALITY = WHOOPEE

Call me a Personality,” John wrote. “I didn’t want it that way, it just happened. If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.”

Phillips stretches in his chair and covers a yawn. The last rays of afternoon sunlight slice through the curtains, accentuating a slight stubble on his pale skin. He’s had no time to work on a tan, or do anything else except gear up for another chapter of whoopee: John Phillips is running for Congress.

Phillips, a Democrat, has chosen to run in Connecticut’s Fourth District, which includes most of Fairfield County. Within its boundaries are such wealthy bedroom communities as Darien, Westport and Greenwich, as well as Bridgeport, Connecticut’s second-largest city. It’s the only district in the state with a Republican congressman.

So far, Phillips has two challengers for the nomination: Arthur Goldblatt and Wayne Konitshek. Whoever is picked by the Democrats will face five-term incumbent Stewart McKinney. According to popular wisdom, challenging the well-liked, moderate-liberal Republican millionaire is political suicide.

“We can beat him,” Phillips announces evenly. He has the kind of deep, reassuring voice that late-night DJs would envy. “I’m completely serious about this, and it can be done.”

In late August, Phillips will be twenty-five, the minimum age for members of Congress. But he doesn’t think his youth will hurt his chances. He points out that Tom Downey, a New York Democrat with a strong congressional record, was twenty-five when he was elected in 1974.

What may be a liability is Phillips’ outspoken views. As Connecticut State Democratic Chairman Jim Fitzgerald has told me, “This isn’t a good year to be a liberal.”

But Phillips doesn’t agree. His catchwords are optimism, commitment, ideals and hope. His campaign motto: New Energy for the Eighties.

Phillips shares a house in Rowayton, on Bell Island, with three of his chief campaign staffers. John Coffee, 25, a friend from Princeton, serves as campaign manager. Michael Colopy, 29, a veteran of several congressional races, is Phillips’ issues adviser. Meg McDowell, 25, a childhood friend who studied communications at Hampshire College, is his press secretary.

From the looks of their rented house and beat-up cars, nobody’s getting rich off this campaign. Coffee, Colopy and McDowell live on modest campaign salaries. Phillips covers his living expenses with fees from lectures and occasional articles, along with royalties from Mushroom, a book he wrote in 1978 with his roommate David Michaelis. They share the house to save money, but it’s clear they like the community spirit. Their household checking account is officially titled “the Gang of Four.”

“Hey, John,” says Coffee, a tall, sandy-haired fellow wearing jeans and Topsiders, as he walks into the living room with a stack of papers. “How about using a Woody Allen quote in Sunday’s speech?” He begins to read “My Speech to the Graduates,” an article Allen wrote for the op-ed page of the New York Times in 1979. “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction…. ” By now, McDowell and Colopy have wandered into the room. Coffee adjusts his horn-rimmed glasses and continues. “Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly….”

“Too down,” says McDowell. “Don’t you think?”

“Maybe you could use part of it,” offers Colopy, passing around more beer.

“I like it,” says Phillips, lighting a cigarette. “Let’s try to work it in. But keep the mood positive.”

At nine o’clock Sunday morning, Phillips, dressed in a white shirt, conservative dark blue suit (somewhat frayed around the lining), solid tie and black shoes, is wondering where his driver is. His housemates, away on campaign business, have left the candidate to pace the living room. He puts on a Blondie album and cranks it to a level that would shake your bones at midnight, let alone at this ungodly hour. He plants himself on the couch and works his fists into his knees like a football player psyching himself for a game.

The driver, Jeff Truex, finally shows up, and we head for the Annual State Democratic Outing, at a country club near New Haven. It rains on and off during the trip north, and when we arrive, unfashionably early, a thin mist is hanging over the rolling green lawns. The Democrats have been forced inside the “club,” which looks more like an airplane hangar. Most of the picnickers are milling around the clam tables and hot coffee machines, waiting for the bar to open.

“Did you bring some buttons?” Phillips asks Jeff as we load up on chowder. He nods. “Good. I wish we had some posters to put up outside. Maybe we should call Bessie and ask her to bring some over.” Bessie is Phillips’ mother. She and his father, Aris, a Yale professor, live in nearby North Haven. Jeff leaves to call Bessie. John starts working the crowd.

First he spots a middle-age woman in Bermuda shorts. His voice is even and cónfident as he offers his hand. “Hi! I’m John Phillips. I’m running for Congress.” She seems tentative. Then he smiles that megaton smile. She melts. “I’m hoping for your support,” he says, like an old friend. She nods. He turns to a man standing nearby. “Hi! I’m John Phillips….”

Predictably, Phillips’ strong opposition to nuclear proliferation is the cornerstone of his campaign. He favors an orderly phase-out of existing nuclear power plants and a moratorium on new construction. He wants to see dangerous plants, such as New York’s Indian Point, shut down immediately.

“I’m convinced the nuclear industry is literally one of the most corrupt special interests the planet has ever seen,” says Phillips. “They’re playing God.”

He doesn’t think too highly of the oil companies either: “I’m in favor of increasing the windfall profits tax. Since the oil companies own about half of the uranium supplies in the U.S., taxes on their profits should be set aside for long-term nuclear waste disposal.”

Phillips also proposes restructuring the federal tax system that drains the Northeast; he supports the concept of national health care and incentives to small businesses. Phillips thinks possessing marijuana should not be a crime; he’s pro-ERA, pro-SALT II, antidraft.

He isn’t worried that his positions are too far left for the voters — or the delegates. Most of his campaigning has been aimed at convincing Democratic leaders that he is a winner, which will be good for the party as a whole. The strategy is to work within the system, to their mutual benefit, without compromising on the issues.

When the bar finally opens, the beer starts to flow and the outing picks up. A few people fox-trot around an accordion player. Arthur Goldblatt, 46, walks through the door armed for tennis, wearing sneakers and a Lacoste shirt. The South Norwalk lawyer, a moderate-liberal, tells me that although he and Phillips differ on some issues, they’re “basically on the same wavelength.”

Fast at his heels is Wayne Konitshek, 32, Phillips’ other opponent. A former lobbyist for gas retailers, Konitshek is wearing a tight three-piece suit and a tie festooned with little gas pumps. He’s been known to call Phillips “Jane Fonda’s baby brother” at town meetings. “I thought I’d come off as too liberal,” says Konitshek. “But Phillips is so far left, he’s off the wing!”

By now, Bessie has arrived with the posters, which she and Jeff are tacking up. She’s a short, boisterous woman with salt-and-pepper hair and an easy laugh. I ask her how she feels about her son’s candidacy.

“When we heard about it, my husband and I thought, ‘Well, John’s been able to do things we didn’t expect him to do before. Why not run for Congress?'” She chuckles. “He’ll probably be a congressman.”

By all accounts, Phillips had a happy, secure childhood in North Haven, where he was raised in a “fairly modest split-level” on a leafy suburban street. Aris Phillips (born Aristotellis Philippidis) became a Greek national hero in 1937 when he cracked a Nazi engineering secret while still in college. After World War II, the U.S. State Department invited him to live in America.

Bessie Phillips, who’s been involved in local Democratic politics for years, describes the family as “activist, but not way out. My husband and I always emphasized basic social values. And what impresses me most about both John and his brother, Dean, are their strong consciences.”

Despite average IQ scores, Phillips always got good grades, though he was never the top student. “He really wasn’t interested in being number one,” says his mother, “unless he thought it was worth it.”

After graduating from high school in 1973, Phillips spent two years at Berkeley, then transferred to Princeton. Phillips managed to keep a high profile at college, even before he made the newspapers. He danced in drag for a Triangle Club musical, cofounded a pizza delivery service and pranced around in a tiger suit at football games. He also nearly flunked out.

The next semester, he decided to buckle down, and proposed a rather ambitious independent physics project: he would design a workable atom bomb using publicly available information. They gave him two months. With some declassified government documents, one phone call to DuPont and a string of all-nighters, Phillips designed his bomb. His professors locked the thirty-four-page paper in a vault and gave him an A.

While John’s design was extraordinary, it was not unique. At least one other undergraduate had designed a nuclear weapon before Phillips. Private citizens have done it since. A writer for the Progressive recently figured out how to build an H-bomb. He wasn’t whoopeed (although his publisher was, when the government tried to censor the article). An amateur scientist named Chuck Hansen solved the Progressive censorship problem when he published a letter containing an H-bomb design that he had developed with publicly available information. Why didn’t he become the H-Bomb Buff?

There’s obviously something special about Phillips. His mother first noticed it when he was a boy.

“Once when John was eight, he entered a kite contest,” Bessie Phillips recalls. “And John didn’t have the biggest kite, or the most original kite, or the highest or the fastest. But the judges gave him a prize because of the way he flew it. He had style. It was just the way he did things.”

Ross Brown, a seasoned Hollywood casting director, best describes John’s special appeal: “He’s one of the most magnetic young men I’ve met. Once that sonofabitch smiles at you, you know you’ve been smiled at!”

Phillips met Brown during the summer of 1977 after John flew to Los Angeles to negotiate the terms of the TV movie. There was one problem: Phillips wouldn’t sell the rights unless he could play himself, and the network wasn’t going for it. One afternoon, Phillips walked into the office of Paul Monash, then head of CBS-TV. Monash had never met him before. They talked for about five minutes. Phillips got the lead.

Though the film was never made (for several reasons, including the nuclear industry’s alleged demand for equal time), Brown thinks Phillips could have a great career in Hollywood.

David Michaelis, now a freelance writer, thinks the Hollywood episode made a deep impression on Phillips. “Designing the bomb had given him the feeling that anything was possible and could be done in a very short time,” says Michaelis. “All the media attention had given him a keener sense of himself; he was asked about his opinions, and he realized he had something important to say. Then the movie deal gave him another perspective: he was selling the film idea, and selling himself. After he got back from Hollywood, there was a change in John’s life. It was the point where he stopped letting whoopee — the media attention — act on him; he began acting on it.”

By the time Phillips returned to Princeton for his final year, the whoopee had died down. So, as an experiment, he sent out about 2000 little cards to almost everyone he’d met, announcing his graduation. The cards were decorated with a smirking tiger cradling a bomb. AP and UPI picked up the story. The formula worked again.

“I think John was perceived as calculating by some people at Princeton,” says Michaelis. “There’s a certain resentment among one’s peers of someone who’s going someplace in a big hurry. There was a gap between what John wanted to do and the way people perceived it.”

Now that Phillips is running for Congress, that problem seems to have magnified. Though most of his colleagues respect him, a few people wonder about his motives: one even suggests he might be an actor looking for a bigger role. The question has also been raised whether his eagerness to seek office has damaged his credibility as an antinuclear activist.

Part of Phillips’ power base is an organization called the Fund for Secure Energy (FUSE). Founded by Phillips in July 1979, FUSE is a nonprofit citizens’ action group that developed a media campaign to drum up public support for alternative energy sources. Phillips raised $160,000 to buy radio time and to create broadcasts targeted at people who would ignore or be alienated by traditional antinuclear tactics, such as rallies and site occupation. Nine months after FUSE’s inception, he announced his candidacy.

To some people, FUSE looked like a blatant political vehicle for Phillips.

“The attention FUSE was getting obviously helped,” he says, “but FUSE is continuing and expanding. I’m still the chairman, and that belies any idea that it was solely designed as a political move. It has been abundantly clear that I could have run for Congress before FUSE.”

Phillips isn’t the only candidate to emerge from a citizens’ action group: in 1974, thirty-year-old Toby Moffet parlayed his directorship of the Connecticut Citizens’ Action Group into a Democratic seat in Congress. But Moffet stuck with CCAG for three years before running for office.

John Aristotle Phillips feels he’s ready now. Senator William Proxmire, who has kept in touch with Phillips since 1977, seems to agree.

“It’s never too soon to run for Congress,” says Proxmire. “John Phillips is an astonishing young man. He’s imaginative and innovative. He’ll make a great congressman. And if he’s going to be president, he’d better get started now.” Does the senator actually think Phillips will be president? Proxmire chuckles softly. “He’d make a good president.”

Sam Lovejoy — the executive director of Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), who met Phillips the summer FUSE was founded — has some reservations about the candidate. “Oh, I believe he’s sincerely anti-nuke,” Lovejoy says. “But I think his fingernails are a little too clean. I don’t go for the superspiffy three-piece suit act,” says Lovejoy, who often conducts his business in blue jeans. “Phillips is going to learn a whole lot if he gets to Congress. I’ve seen so many white knights who can’t take a speck of dirt.”

It’s already dusk when Phillips returns home. He hangs up the blue suit and emerges from his room wearing a red sweater and jeans. He’s weary but still buzzing from the day of campaigning, and he suggests we walk out to the point to unwind. The point is a small promontory overlooking the sound. From here, you can look across the water to Long Island’s north shore, bathed in an eerie red glow from the lights of La Guardia Airport. Phillips doesn’t spend much time alone, but when he can, he comes here.

We settle down on a flat rock near the water.

“What do you think you’ll be doing in five or six years?” I ask.

“Getting ready to run for higher office, perhaps. Thirty is the next age limit for governor or senator.”

“What about settling down, raising kids?”

Phillips smiles. “I don’t plan that far in the future. I don’t have a steady girlfriend. I’ve got no time for an active social life.”

“Don’t you feel you’re missing something, getting too serious too fast?”

He smiles patiently. “Not at all! I’m enjoying myself more than I ever have in my life. I made a sacrifice in terms of privacy a long time ago. And I had a terrific time. But when I say I’m having fun, it doesn’t mean this campaign is a joy ride, a fling — like, ‘What’s next for the A-Bomb Kid,’ that kind of bullshit. I couldn’t be enjoying myself if there weren’t some meaning for me.”

“I heard that Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy and John Anderson sought your endorsement during the primaries. What do you think of them?”

“I was flattered that their people contacted me, but I decided to hold off. I’ll support the Democratic nominee. I expect I’ll be working with Carter if he’s nominated. But I’m going to be running my own race. I’ll have my hands full, and I’m not going to take on the reelection of Carter. I think Kennedy’s and Anderson’s challenges are good for the country. And I admire the fact that Kennedy stuck it out so long.”

“What do you think about Jerry Brown?” I ask.

“I think he had a positive impact on the race. Unfortunately, he’s ahead of his time — that’s not meant to be derisive. I wish the country was ready to seize the opportunities he’s speaking of, in terms of energy, technology, space exploration, environmental issues….”

“Senator Proxmire said you’d make a good president. What do you think?”

Phillips laughs, then pauses. “Not right now. I don’t have the experience yet.”

“I don’t think he meant today.”

He laughs again. “I don’t rule out any possibilities.”

“Why are you running for Congress so soon?”

Phillips is no longer smiling. His eyes are studying the water. “I’ve always been afraid of time,” he says quietly. “That’s why I’m doing things right now, always going, going, going. I’m afraid of growing old and sitting in this rocking chair and thinking, ‘What a waste of a life.'” He lights up a Kent. “I’ve always admired great figures in history: Joan of Arc, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, to some extent Abraham Lincoln. I always felt there was a combination of personality and circumstance.”

“That made them great or made them famous?”

“I’m really not interested in being famous. I’ve already had a taste of that. I’ve had a taste of wealth [from the movie deal]. Wealth and fame don’t really excite me that much. The Greeks were always interested in immortality. And making a substantive contribution in one’s lifetime is a way of living beyond one’s years. It’s not purely egotistical, although it is to a large extent. If you look through the whole sweep of history, you see there are generations that preserve civilization as it is, and there are generations that advance it. I don’t want to be part of a generation that just devours civilization for what it has been. I’d like to see fundamental advances made in my lifetime. In that way, it’s very egotistical. I don’t want this to be just a normal, boring seventy-five or hundred years on the planet.”

“You’ve said that you wanted to be an astronaut.”

“Yeah,” he sighs. “That was a long time ago. First of all, I don’t think NASA wanted me. But it was more than that. I realize there are many people more qualified than me in the world of science. As much as I love physics, I just don’t have what it takes to make fundamental contributions.

“I felt that because of my experience with the media — -combined with how deeply I believe that we should go in certain directions to shape this generation’s destiny — I might be able to make a contribution through this campaign. I realize we’re shooting awfully damn high, but what’s the point of doing it otherwise?”

Phillips’ voice has a peculiar edge of anger in it. I notice that his face has hardened; his eyes are fixed.

“Our generation is going to be paying the bill for a lot of mistakes being made right now. Nuclear waste, wasted resources; it makes me so irate when I think about it. It’s like a slow burn, all the time. That really bothers me, because instead of turning our eyes forward to meet the challenges of the future, we have to turn our eyes backward and clean up.”

A damp wind is blowing off the sound, so we start walking back to the house. Phillips seems to be in his own world, almost talking to himself.

“Right now, I’m putting up with a lot of nonsense in the campaign — ‘Damn-glad-to-meetcha,’ stuff like that. But I can pay those kinds of dues and smile about it the whole time. I understand this is not going to be handed to us. But it’s all worth it if you think of what we might accomplish here.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Nuclear weapons, Politics

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