A 21-Gun Send-Off
By Megan Rosenfeld
This week, as the encomiums and tributes poured down on his leonine head as steadily as the rain flowed outside, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums's strong features took on an even more mournful cast than usual. However much politicians love to hear their praises sung loudly and at length, there was true sadness in the California Democrat's leave-taking, and a rare display of bipartisan emotion.
But the story of Ron Dellums's 27 years in Congress is not just about a wild-eyed radical, a self-described "commie pinko Afro-topped bell-bottomed dude from Berkeley" who earned the love of friends and the respect of enemies. It is about a man who made strategic and deliberate decisions about how and when and for how long to promote his causes, to ignore insult and outlast exclusion, to be a gentleman rather than a firebrand. "At the end of the day," as he likes to say, he found he cares as much that ideas be discussed freely and fairly as he does about the issues themselves.
Dellums is leaving mid-term at age 62 because "it's time." There are family responsibilities calling him, he says, needs that he has too often ignored in the past. He will not reveal exactly what they are. He plans to write a book with his longtime aide Lee Halterman, to stay involved with the progressive causes close to his heart, and to earn some money, but says that nothing has been finalized yet. For the time being, he will stay in Washington, gradually moving back to the San Francisco Bay area from which he came.
He will not become a high-paid lobbyist with a Town Car, he says.
He is not leaving the House "a cynic" but "with my enthusiasm and my idealism intact."
"You don't usually uproot yourself at the age of 62," he said Thursday. "I made the decision to leave last fall, and the next day I woke up and said, `What the hell did I do!' I'm frightened to death."
People spoke movingly this week of Dellums's short but effective term as chairman of the Armed Services Committee (now called National Security), his 17-year sojourn on the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the District, his 15-year effort to pass economic sanctions against South Africa, his long-term opposition to expensive weapons such as the B-1 and the B-2 bombers. They recalled his eloquence, his courtliness and his elegant suits.
But recollecting the past has a price, bringing back the bitter along with the sweet. When Dellums spoke for the last time to his colleagues in the famous well of the House, amid the affection and the gratitude there was also pain.
"I'm just a guy," he said. "If you hit me I hurt, and if you cut me I bleed. And there were many times when you hit me, and there were times when I went to my office at night, and, sometimes with tears in my eyes, I prayed just to have the strength to march back to the floor with my pride and my dignity and to continue to try to fight back."
He held back tears as he finished and was surrounded by well-wishers. An observer would have seen a lot of men in suits white men and black, old and young hugging the tall guy from California. Congressmen hug these days.
"When I came to Congress I did not like Ron Dellums," said conservative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) during a 2 1/2-hour House floor tribute Tuesday. "We ended up embracing each other. And I'd like to state for the record in a manly way, Mr. Chairman."
"F. Edward Hebert [the 72-year-old committee chairman] didn't want girls or African Americans," said former representative Patricia Schroeder, who applied for the committee at the same time. "The chair had an unofficial veto over who was assigned to his committee."
Dellums consulted Rep. Phil Burton, a colleague from Northern California, who advised him to meet with then-Speaker Carl Albert. He also suggested taking two other members of the Black Caucus along the mild-mannered Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) and the fiery Bill Clay (D-Mo.), who at that time sported an imposing Afro.
"The idea was to have Stokes make the case, and Bill to sit there and look mean," Dellums said. And so it went, back and forth, with Albert and Tip O'Neill, then majority leader, saying Hebert thought Dellums would be a security risk, Clay rebutting angrily and Stokes pressing the case. Finally Clay declared the Black Caucus would call a news conference and denounce the Congress as racist.
"The blood drained from Albert's face," Dellums said. "They said, `Let us go back and reconsider.' Forty minutes later I got the call `You've been appointed.' "
But the story wasn't over. When Dellums and Schroeder arrived for their first committee meeting, they found only one chair for the two of them, as though neither one was considered a full person.
"Everything in me wanted to rage against this indignity," Dellums said. "But I thought, let's not give these folks the luxury of seeing that. . . . We sat cheek to cheek in the chair for the entire meeting."
There were two chairs the next time.
As it turned out, Dellums forged his career in the Armed Services Committee. He proved he had the makings of a fair chairman when he headed a subcommittee, and when time and seniority worked his way, he became chairman in 1993, a post he lost two years later when the Republicans took over Congress.
"I had a four-year plan about where I wanted to take the debate," Dellums recalled a bit sadly. "The first two years I didn't go on every talk show and I was invited because I didn't want to jump out in front. . . . It was important to master the process and gain the respect of my colleagues. The third and fourth year I wanted to surface more, getting more into the national discussion. I didn't get to do that, and that was a low point for me. . . . That moment slipped by. That was a blow."
On the other hand, he says, "let the record show I was never a media pimp."
There were other low points. Being on Richard Nixon's enemies list was a kind of compliment in Berkeley circles, but when Dellums found, with the help of an expert, that his phones were tapped, he was genuinely scared. Being regarded as a "caricature" early in his career caused him a lot of stress, he said, so he tamped down his rhetoric and drew inspiration from his heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and, later, Nelson Mandela, two advocates of assertive nonviolence.
In 1982, Dellums and two other congressmen were investigated for drug use on the allegations of a former House doorkeeper; 15 months later all three were exonerated. That, too, was a low point, but he does not claim there was a conspiracy to get him. A decade later, he was among the more than 300 House members listed as having written bad checks on their House bank accounts. Dellums had more than any other member, with 851, and like other members said at the time that his bank statements did not indicate when he was overdrawn. He was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, he was steadily gaining respect as a legislator and being reelected by increasing margins. In his leadership roles on Armed Services, he won kudos for giving fair hearings to people whose views he disagreed with, and for supporting bills approved by the committee that he had voted against. He teamed up in an odd-couple alliance with Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio) to fight the $2 billion B-2 bomber; they succeeded in decreasing the number of planes authorized.
He and Schroeder fought to improve the lot of service members and their families, spending more of the defense appropriations on such things as moving allowances and schools.
"If you look at a number of issues that were considered radical when I came here, they are now mainstream," he reflected Thursday. As he spoke, he surveyed his office walls, covered with plaques and awards and photographs not yet packed. "The anti-war movement became the peace movement, and those issues are still on the table. And the Vietnam War ended. The Cold War is over. Environmental issues are mainstream. People didn't used to understand what it meant for a man to call himself a feminist, and those issues are certainly on the table."
But if he has one lament aside from all the social justice problems that he is concerned about it is that the rules of debate in the House have changed. "You used to have five minutes, and you could get other people to yield you their time, so you had 15 minutes to argue a case," he said. "Now it's 30 seconds, maybe a minute. You can't really address anything in that amount of time."
Price of Priorities
"Let's end this debate," he pleaded. "Let's override this veto and let me love my son."
And so they voted (but not to override), and he got to the wedding. Later Dellums got mail from all over the country thanking him for reminding them that congressmen are human, that they have families and lives beyond Capitol Hill "and this business can crush the dreams" of spouses and children.
And so, too, the closing ceremonies of Dellums's career were reminders of both the families outside the Congress and the relationships that develop within. People become friends even when they are ideological opposites, partly because they have offices near each other (as did Dellums and Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who organized the floor tribute to Dellums) or because they work out in the House gym at the same time (as did Dellums and John Kasich, R-Ohio). They remember his thoughtfulness: When Rep. Norm Sisisky (D-Va.) was having chemotherapy, Dellums asked after him, or when Kasich got married, Dellums went to his wedding and wrote a beautiful note.
Dellums's nuclear family is changing, too. He and his wife of 36 years, Roscoe, have been quietly separated for some time and may be divorcing (he says yes; she says, "We're exploring where we're going to go"). He says they will always be friends, and acknowledged the toll of his political career on his marriage.
"People decide where they want to put their time," said Roscoe Dellums. "If they decide to spend their time away from the family, the family is the victim. . . . Or at least you have to be able to really make a child understand why you can't be there. I don't think Ron did that very well."
She said their daughter, Piper, has been ill, and that she and her father are close. "Sometimes people do want to stop and want to smell the roses," she said.
And so the lion moves on. His hair and beard have turned white, and he talks about his grandchildren. The hothead has become an elder, sought out for his counsel, praised for his consistency.
"To those of you who stopped long enough to see me in more than one dimension, thank you," he said in his valedictory. "For those of you who stopped long enough to embrace me as a friend, thank you. For those of you who came together with me in the spirit of battle to try to right the wrongs, challenge the evils, to make this world a better place for our children and our children's children, thank you. For those of you who just said, `Hi, Ron,' thank you. . . . And I hope whatever life has in store for me beyond today will be a fraction of the excitement, of the enthusiasm, of this institution."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company