Lionel Van Deerlin, 93; Nine-Term Representative From California

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lionel Van Deerlin, 93, a liberal Democrat who served nine terms in Congress despite the conservative inclinations of his Southern California constituency, died May 17 at his home in San Diego after suffering a heart attack in March last year.

Mr. Van Deerlin, known as "Van," represented the southern part of San Diego County from 1963 to 1981, when the Reagan landslide rolled over him. He lost to Duncan Hunter, a young San Diego lawyer and Vietnam veteran. Hunter continues to hold the seat.

In Congress, Mr. Van Deerlin served as chairman of the House subcommittee on communications and was responsible for overseeing a comprehensive rewrite of the nation's telecommunications legislation.

He also helped create C-SPAN, the network that broadcasts proceedings of the House and Senate. He was among the first lawmakers to voluntarily disclose his personal financial records.

After his 1980 loss for reelection, he began writing a regular syndicated column, first for the San Diego Tribune and then for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He continued to write the column until shortly before his death.

A happy warrior as both congressman and columnist, Mr. Van Deerlin was proudly partisan but never in a mean-spirited way. Funny, friendly and self-deprecating, he made it a point to reach across the aisle and to avoid ad hominem attacks.

His column reflected the man. A lively, engaging writer, he left no doubt about his liberal views, but he relied on his quick wit, a firm grasp of the issues and a lifetime's store of anecdotes to provoke and persuade.

"Even when you disagreed with him, and some of us could disagree strongly with him, there was a decency about him," former California governor Pete Wilson (R) told the Union-Tribune. "You always got the feeling that he cared about the best interests of the region and wanted to make sure those were served." Wilson was mayor of San Diego during much of Mr. Van Deerlin's time in Congress.

When he lost to Hunter, the son of an old friend, his concession speech was in character: "Having been elected by the people in this district for nine consecutive elections, it would hardly be appropriate to say that they've taken leave of their senses this time."

Mr. Van Deerlin was born in Los Angeles on July 25, 1914, and received his undergraduate degree in 1937 from the University of Southern California, where he was editor of the Daily Trojan.

He worked on two now-defunct newspapers in San Diego as well as the Baltimore Evening Sun and the old Minneapolis Tribune. During World War II, he served in the Army as a staff member of Stars and Stripes in the Mediterranean.

He was a news director for San Diego radio and TV stations before being elected to Congress on his third try. He also was a professor emeritus of communications at San Diego State University, which has an endowed chair in his name.

His wife of 67 years, Mary Jo Van Deerlin, died last year.

Survivors include five children, Susie Van Deerlin of Julian, Calif., Victoria Van Deerlin of Encinitas, Calif., Elizabeth Van Deerlin of Hurlock, Md., and Jeff Van Deerlin and John Van Deerlin, both of San Diego; and four grandchildren.

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