WASHINGTON - At a top-secret meeting for the incoming Democratic president, Brent Scowcroft, the White House national security adviser, was explaining how to pull the nuclear trigger.
Scowcroft unlatched a black leather valise - it looked like a doctor's bag - that has been known as the "football" since the Eisenhower administration.
It contained a bewildering array of options tailored to crises that would require the president to launch anywhere from one to 9,000 thermonuclear warheads.
In less than an hour, more than 100 million people could die and the survivors, as Nikita Khrushchev once said, "would envy the dead."
For Scowcroft, the somber mood of the meeting was disrupted when he glanced inside the black bag.
There was an empty beer can and a large condom used by horse breeders. Scowcroft ignored the items that were added by a giggling colleague and continued to brief President-elect Carter on the staggering power he would inherit from Gerald Ford.
White House officials say it is likely that Scowcroft will, as he did in 1977, prepare President-elect Clinton for the hand-off from President Bush on Jan. 20.
But at least one military expert thinks that it might be time to shelve the black bag that, along with Air Force One and "Hail to the Chief," has become a symbol of the U.S. presidency.
"With the end of the Cold War, a case could be made for reducing the alert status of nuclear weapons and, thus, the need for the president to have constant access to them," said Bruce Blair, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In his forthcoming book, "The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War," Blair will detail the pitfalls of nuclear planning that he began studying as a U.S. Air Force launch officer in a Minuteman II missile command silo in 1972.
Blair's study, including the lighter moments of Scowcroft's 1977 briefing, traces the evolution of the football.
Today it is a black leather attache case that includes a telephone and two pull-up antennae, but no matter what it looks like, it gives the president the ability to respond to the threat of nuclear war, particularly while outside the White House.
Ostensibly, it was always at the president's side, toted by a military aide.
But when Ford attended an economic summit meeting outside Paris in 1975, the football was nowhere to be found.
"It wasn't lost," said Ron Nessen, Ford's press secretary. "They just left it on Air Force One. It was one of those things: `Didn't you bring the football? No, I thought you had the football.' "
When Ford handed off the football, Carter made a series of significant changes.
According to Blair, the black bag contained summary versions of the Single, Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP).
Some ran more than 30 pages and detailed the combined use of nuclear weapons fired from underground silos and submarines as well as strategic bombers.
"The president wasn't satisfied with the initial briefing," according to Jody Powell, Carter's press secretary.
"He figured this was the most important decision a president could make, so he decided to have a surprise practice drill. As you might expect, several things didn't go right."
At the heart of the problem was the pressure of time. When a Polaris submarine made the first successful launch in the 1950s of a rocket that carried an atomic warhead, it proved the next world war could be over in less than 30 minutes.
Eisenhower was the first president to grapple with fateful decisions that must be made before warheads completed their brief ballistic journey.
By the time Carter took over, U.S. strategic planners had concluded that the president would have only seven minutes to make the decision.
According to Blair, Carter transformed the wordy SIOP options into instantly recognizable symbols.
"A condensed cartoon version was created by Carter to make visual representations of the options," Blair said.
The cartoon version was a godsend for President Reagan, who aides have said loathed reading any government document longer than a single page.
In some ways, Bush has made the most profound changes in the football.
Shortly after becoming president in 1989, he eliminated the so-called "launch on warning" option devised by President Nixon.
It required a massive American salvo of nuclear weapons before an actual Soviet attack but after U.S. detection systems indicated a surprise strike was under way.
"Bush decided that it was the kind of option that we didn't need in today's world," one U.S. strategic war planner said.
Bush also dramatically reduced the threat of nuclear war shortly after a failed coup and the emergence of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1991.
The Brookings Institution has been in the forefront of efforts to reduce the alert status of these weapons so that it would take a day or more to launch them.
A "zero alert" status for both U.S. and Soviet Confederation weapons has been endorsed by Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.
Chairman Les Aspin of the House Armed Services Committee plans hearings on the issue next year.
But an Aspin aide doubted that Clinton would drop the football.
For the incoming president, whose efforts to avoid Vietnam War service were a major issue in the campaign, ". . . that would probably be a bad political move," the aide said.
While the U.S. military has intensively trained to launch nuclear weapons, some senior commanders have openly disdained scenarios that called for such a fateful split-second presidential decision.
A noted skeptic was Air Force Gen. Richard Ellis, the pipe-smoking SAC commander.
Asked in a 1978 interview what he would do if the president called and said "launch them," Ellis blew a puff of smoke and said:
"Well, I guess I would say, `I'll put you on hold and get back to you.' "