Congo Bob – San Diego's most powerful man

Will the real Bob Wilson..?

Bob Wilson has risen from a San Diego State drop-out and World War II army private to one of the most powerful congressmen in the country.
  • Bob Wilson has risen from a San Diego State drop-out and World War II army private to one of the most powerful congressmen in the country.
  • Image by Bob Eckert

(ED. This is the first in a two-part series on the most interesting congressional campaign in San Diego this year. Next week's Reader will feature Wilson's opponent Colleen O'Connor.)

In 1953 he pledged federal money to dredge Mission Bay, in 1954 he favored federally-supported housing in Linda Vista.

In 1953 he pledged federal money to dredge Mission Bay, in 1954 he favored federally-supported housing in Linda Vista.

If anyone thinks C. Arnholt Smith had a local rags to riches story to tell, he should talk to Congressman Bob Wilson. Wilson has risen from a San Diego State drop-out and World War II army private to one of the most powerful congressmen in the country. It hasn't been one of those stories where it appears like hard. 12-hour work-days and really it was behind-the-scenes politicking. In Wilson’s case he has made it unabashedly through hard politicking.

Wilson: "I thought the President's pardon of Mr. Nixon was pre-mature."

Wilson: "I thought the President's pardon of Mr. Nixon was pre-mature."

He is quite direct about being a politician: "I thought the President's pardon of Mr. Nixon was pre-mature. But then I'm a politician. For political reasons. I would've waited."

Indeed, so many of Wilson’s actions since his first term in 1952 have had political tones, that one would think he is merely a doggedly faithful water boy for his constituents. Though basically a conservative, in 1953 he pledged federal money to dredge Mission Bay, in 1954 he favored federally-supported housing in Linda Vista and an expansion of San Diego harbor to accommodate aircraft carriers, and over the years he has steadily brought more and more defense projects to the San Diego area.

"The President came in and bawled me out for leaving a door open and letting his daughter's cat out."

"The President came in and bawled me out for leaving a door open and letting his daughter's cat out."

He has continually favored military pay raises. Even now, when President Ford tries to fight inflation by holding back on federal pay raises, Wilson is in there fighting for what he calls “a justified increase.”

But Wilson is more than a water boy for San Diego voters. He has been a mover — both in the Republican Party and as a sort of local executive who brings his influence to bear on other local centers of power. From 1961 to 1973 he served as head of the House G.O.P. Campaign Committee and thus had the crucial control over which congressmen got national money. And at various times he has acted as a broker of power in town. In 1955 he opposed former Judge Hewicker’s suggestion that the border be closed to Navymen, in 1964 he opposed the construction of the Coronado Bridge, and in 1971 he was able to use both his party influence and his local pull by acting as broker in getting I.T.T. to kick in enough money to bring the national G.O.P. convention here.

It was, of course, this last bit of power-brokerage that scandalized the general public.

  • Other than John Mitchell, Ed Reineke, Bob Haldeman, and Nixon (besides Wilson, of course) no one has known from whom that 400 thousand committment (sic) had come...
  • – the infamous Dita Beard memo

And it's these associations of Wilson with Dita Beard, with fishing buddy and I.T.T. president Harold Geneen, and with local ad agency president Norm Tolle (Wilson is a vice president of the Tolle Agency: Tolle handles some I.T.T. advertising) that continue to plague Wilson’s image. But Wilson is redoubtable: "I don’t think I have to change my personal associations. I don’t want to avoid seeing somebody because I don't agree with them or they represent a certain interest... I’ve proposed full disclosure of campaign contributions, and the Republicans support full campaign disclosures. The Democrats don't want to support full disclosure because they get so many contributions "in kind" from labor."

The interesting thing is that although Wilson will suffer from guilt by association with the I.T.T. affair and the other Nixon Administration “affairs,” special prosecutor Jaworski has cleared him of anything illegal, and Wilson claims he's been on the outs with the Nixon Administration for some time. Though Wilson was close to Nixon before 1968, he claims, “I talked to the President (Nixon) only one time in five years.” In 1973 Wilson resigned his post as head of the House GOP Campaign Committee, first saying that he wanted to devote more time to his position on the Armed Services Committee, and then admitting that he felt that “some of the White House staff was trying to get rid of me.”

Wilson now says that he thinks that he was “being gigged" by Haldeman while Nixon was in office (especially ironic because he was Haldeman’s former boss in 1960 and because he, too. is a former advertising man). He thinks Nixon let himself be walled off by Haldeman and Erlichman because “Nixon is basically a loner."

Now with Gerald Ford as president, Wilson has access. "I was invited up to the White House within 10 days after Gerry Ford took over. He and I were both members of the Wednesday morning Chowder and Marching group, and he came to my wedding in May... I almost let the cat out of the White House. I went into one of the rooms. I noticed Gerry Ford's exercise equipment, I noticed a rubber mouse. The President came in and bawled me out for leaving a door open and letting his daughter's cat out... 'Course I don't call him Gerry anymore. It’s "Mr. President."

Wilson has an obvious affinity to the Ford Administration. He says that because the nation has suffered the intense shocks of Watergate and the quadrupling of oil prices, what the Ford Administration can best hope to do is to “shore up — restore confidence in the U.S. Government." Wilson pooh-pooh's the effect of Ford’s pardon of ex-president Nixon.

Wilson's San Diego field office, just a short walk up Camino de la Reina from the Union Tribune building, is not otherwise suitable for a press conference. One of Wilson's aides says they should've had the conference at the larger Press Club auditorium across Highway 8. In the tiny space of the office, the Channel 39 cameraman, Channel 8's Harold Keene, the Tribune reporter, people from minor media all trip over each other as they adjust their camera lights or the volume on their cassette recorders. Wilson sits down at his desk, just under a photograph of Ike shaking hands with a crew-cut fresh congressman Wilson, and calls on reporters by first name. Since he‘s just arrived from Europe (a junket, says his opponent Colleen O'Connor) “to inspect West German armor and look over the Cyprus situation,” most of the questions stick to the polite subject of foreign policy and military affairs. Here Wilson shines. Though he was only in the army a very short time ( he got a humanitarian discharge because his sister had rheumatic fever), he speaks with the authority of a four-star admiral.

Bob Dietrich of the Tribune mentions an aircraft carrier the Russians are building in the Black Sea. Wilson passes over the thrust of the question (that the carrier will have to violate a Turkish prohibition to pass through the Dardanelles) and says. “Ah. yes. that's our Hancock class.” He goes on to talk about the ”high-low mix” of ships that the Russian Navy is building, and the fact that the Russians built 48 ships this year while the U.S. built only 20.

Most of the reporters are itchy to get to domestic affairs. The tension in the room rises when a reporter interrupts the discussion of NATO and the U.S. Navy to ask about Ford's pardon of Nixon.


The Wilson for Re-election headquarters, a temporary wooden structure plunked down in the middle of a former used car lot. is appropriately located on Midway and Barnett, across the street from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Inside the red, white, and blue building are two ladies from the Loma Portal Women's Republican Club. One of them — if you ask — will give you a copy of the Bob Wilson Cook Book, which has recipes for sour cream apple pie. baked corn beef, and tomato aspic. She may invite you (“no excuses now. you gotta come!") to the opening of the Bob Wilson Headquarters in Clairemont, at the Clairemont Quad. “They're going to have some country music singer there."

Wilson has the uncomfortable sense of humor of a politician who has been around for a while. When a photographer stoops to get a picture of him from below, he quips. "Get that double chin, huh? Ha. ha." He comments on a portrait photograph in the front office. “Yeah, this guy from La Jolla you know him? he said if I lost 8 pounds, he'd take another 8 pounds off me with the lighting and shadows."


Wilson has won by heavy majorities throughout his elected career. He won by more than a two-to-one margin over Frank Caprio two years ago. But given a heavier Democratic registration in his district, given a young female opponent, and given the mercurial flow of national politics, he still flies back to talk to veterans, to small businessmen, and to P.O.W. wives. He continues to do his political homework.

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