The morning after I was first elected to Congress, I flew to Washington hoping to get right to work. The incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee was one of the few House members on Capitol Hill that morning. Since success in my district rested on my winning a spot on that committee, there was little time to waste.
Floyd Spence was a gracious Southern politician who also happened to be the first Republican congressman to win reelection in South Carolina since Reconstruction. He had left the Democratic Party in 1962 — it had become too “liberal” for him — and he neatly fit the stereotype of the sort of white conservative who won elections across the Deep South in the 1960s.
As I sat with the future chairman at his office in the Rayburn building, we marveled at election results that put Republicans in the majority for the first time in 40 years. We also joked about the Democrats who had provided the best campaign fodder on the trail. But when I began excoriating the left-wing politician whom many conservatives believed to be the greatest political threat to a strong national defense, the laughter stopped.
“How can you even work alongside Ron Dellums?” I asked.
The old Southern politician’s jovial mood changed in an instant. He leaned forward to offer the only rebuke I would ever receive from him.
“Son, let me give you some advice. Don’t ever say anything bad about Ron Dellums in front of me,” Spence said, the smile leaving his face. “Ron is as good a man as you will find in Congress. He tells you where he stands, and his word is always good.”
The chairman’s words hung in the air of his cavernous office for a moment before he gently moved the conversation to safer ground. But I remember being moved by this onetime segregationist extolling the character and goodness of a black, Berkeley liberal whom Spiro Agnew had once labeled “an out-and-out radical.”
President Richard M. Nixon’s vice president was right: Ronald Vernie Dellums, who died on July 30 at age 82, was indeed radical, but he was a radical pacifist. As Berkleyside’s Natalie Orenstein wrote this week, Dellums emerged in the late 1960s as a “strong leader who had an extraordinary ability to defuse tension and forge connections.” Those personal skills were in short supply in an era marked by race riots, the Black Panthers, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and bitter showdowns with the police and National Guard. It was always Dellums, his longtime aide Roberta Brooks recalled, who kept Berkeley, Calif., from “blowing up.”
His gift of forging connections explains why conservatives such as Spence and Tom DeLay lavished praise on this “out-and-out radical.” In 1995, after the historic 104th Congress was sworn in, Ron walked over to the Republican side of the chamber and began asking about that fall’s GOP landslide. The liberal icon wanted to better understand what turned me into a conservative firebrand and why it seemed the political energy that had infused the leftist movements of his youth had shifted so suddenly to the right.
I theorized that when he was younger, liberals correctly viewed conservatism as the cause of segregation, Vietnam and Watergate. But by the time I was in my teens, Democrats were seen as the party of double-digit inflation, the Iranian hostage crisis and a failed welfare state.
Ron looked at me earnestly, nodded in approval and broke out into a big smile.
“I never looked at it that way!” he said. It was as if I had offered up a political insight that would forever change his life.
But all the insight actually ended up flowing in the opposite direction. The Berkeley liberal’s desire to better understand my radical worldview would forever change the way I looked at Dellums, the Democratic Party and those I mindlessly viewed as my political opponents. I would have to relearn that lesson far too often in the years to come. We agreed on few things politically, but that wasn’t the point. As he did with so many of the constituents he represented for a generation in Berkeley and across the East Bay, Ron Dellums touched my life in ways he never knew.
In these tough political times, I find myself returning to a line from Norman Maclean’s story “A River Runs Through It”: “We can love completely what we cannot completely understand.” Those words serve as a reminder of past failures and a guide for a better future. But they also remind me of a friend whose path I was once lucky enough to cross.