He is so identified with the cause of the unborn that Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) seems to epitomize the gibe by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that "conservatives' concern for children begins with conception and ends with birth."
Denton's stand against free choice and free sex have made him an ogre to the National Organization for Women and other feminist and liberal organizations. His sponsorship of what was known as "the teen-age chastity" bill occasioned many snickers, although the final product, a compromise named "Adolescent Family Life," won the endorsement of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Denton's unguarded remark during a hearing on a bill about spousal rape-- "Dammit, when you get married, you kind of expect you're going to get a little sex"--produced more laughter inside the Senate and out and fresh outcries from the women's groups.
But there's another side to Denton, one that sets him apart from the cardboard Moral Majoritarians who abound in the new Senate. He spoke of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, the anniversary of his assassination. In advance, Denton paid a call on Kennedy's brother to ask formal permission and to show him the text of the speech. John Kennedy is a hero to Denton, a retired admiral regarded as a hero himself, having spent seven years and seven months as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese.
Denton protests that he cares about the born, too, and that his efforts on their behalf have been lost in the hullabaloo over his nay-saying on abortion and sex. He doubled funds proposed by President Reagan for adoptions and battered children. He managed the bill for aging Americans.
Most recently, he championed a group for which your standard right-winger has no time--Amerasian children, those of Asian women and U.S. servicemen. These children are not wanted here and are regarded as undesirable in their native countries.
To Denton, trying to give the little outcasts a chance to come here is a logical extension of his publicized exertions on sexual morality.
"I am not a sex prude, I'm not a hard-nosed hawk," Denton says. "What I do, I do for children. They are the victims of permissiveness. Look at battered children. A promiscuous mother has many boyfriends. Inevitably one of them resents the child's father and beats up the child."
"Anyone who knows me knows I am a compassionate individual. I always have been. I was president of my class, all the way through school, and you can't be elected unless people sense you are compassionate.
"In Mobile, when I got out of the cooler POW camp , they printed a whole lot of stories, which I had forgotten. One girl I went to high school with said she would never forget me. She was so fat, she couldn't lean over to tie her shoes. I tied them for her."
The man who tied the fat girl's shoes is, he insists, trying to make life easier for children who are the casualties of America's sexual revolution, which erupted while he was imprisoned. He was captured in 1965, when Playboy magazine was at the boundary of public acceptance; he was liberated in 1972, into a world of massage parlors, group sex and Playgirl magazine.
He says he isn't intolerant. He insists he is a survival-oriented person who worries equally about the imbalance in strategic forces and the imbalance in the way we treat our children--"throwing them into tot-lots and giving them television as a sitter."
Jody Darragh, a former Eastern Airlines stewardess who flew mercy missions to Indochina and was assigned as Denton's escort when he finally returned to the United States, brought the plight of the Amerasian children to his attention, and he embraced it with his usual ardor.
To bring such children out of Vietnam, where there are thousands, some contact obviously would be necessary with the Vietnamese government, which we do not recognize.
The idea of recognition does not outrage Denton.
"If it was our policy, and we got something in return, I would not be opposed just because of my experiences there," he says.
"But I want you to hear this carefully: I did not will it as a prisoner that my government should end the war to get us out. I didn't value my own life as a blue chip in exchange for the 17 million people in South Vietnam, who would be subjugated to communist tyranny. So I wouldn't be a leader for recognition just to get accountability on our MIAs or to get these children out. But I wouldn't object on the grounds of what I went through there. I am not a vindictive man."
That self-judgment is confirmed by many who deal with Denton. He is a man of draining intensity. When he talks about immorality and military unpreparedness and the horrors of communism, the two lines perpendicular to his eyebrows deepen to the point where they almost split his forehead. But when the matter is not cosmic, his manner has much warmth and sweetness.
He's for the MX, nerve gas production, AWACS, all the standard "right" things. But he's for compassion, too, and that's more than you can say for the right-wingers with whom he travels and votes in the Senate.