SDSU Preserves San Diego's Political History

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1952 and serving for 14 consecutive terms, Republican Bob Wilson saw plenty of paperwork come across his desk. In 1973, he began depositing it for future researchers at San Diego State University. By the time he spent his bounty, he had donated 474 record cartons, 70 flat boxes of pictures and memorabilia, and 50 scrapbooks.

Wilson is best known for his work from 1959 through 1980 on the House Armed Services Committee and for political campaigning on behalf of Eisenhower and Nixon. In 1971, he arranged with the president of International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) for a $400,000 donation to bring the 1972 Republican National Convention to San Diego. When columnist Jack Anderson later exposed the deal as possibly linked to a favorable outcome for ITT in an antitrust suit, the Republicans changed their convention site to Miami Beach.

With his last contribution of papers in 1980, Wilson restricted the public's access to all but 89 boxes of the donation. He stipulated that the restriction could be lifted after 20 years, or his death, whichever came first. The former congressman died of Alzheimer's in 1999, and SDSU lifted the restriction in 2000.

The enormity of the gift has been both a boon and a burden to SDSU's Special Collections and University Archives, which, according to its website, houses "approximately 37,000 volumes, 270 archival collections, and 369,000 other items such as photographs, art prints, postcards, memorabilia, scrapbooks, etchings, and oral histories." Its interim head, Leah Rosenblum, tells me that donors have the option of restricting their gifts for reasons of family privacy, protection of an ongoing career, or copyright safety. She says that her staff of four, with the help of an intern, "has intellectual control over" the 89 boxes that have been at least initially processed in the Wilson collection. That means that if you ask them to look for material on a particular subject, they probably can find it. But, adds Rosenblum, "The papers are not yet processed to the highest archival standards." The collection still does not have a complete finder's guide to everything it contains.

Since 1998, volunteer John Steiger has been coming periodically to further organize the papers. A history instructor for 25 years at Mesa College, Steiger has provided a detailed organization of 35 boxes having to do with San Diego issues. A glance in one of the boxes shows a series of letters Wilson wrote to constituents demanding better airport safety after the September 25, 1978 North Park crash of Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182. In one that raised the problem small planes posed, written on November 8 the same year, Wilson stated, "I, too, am a frequent user of Lindbergh Field and share your apprehensions. At the moment, I am not at all clear where all this is going to come out. Please be assured of my deep concern and determination to see that appropriate action is taken to alleviate the circumstances which gave rise to the near-misses you refer to."

Rosenblum shows me what a complete finder's guide for an archival collection looks like. Former San Diego city councilman and county supervisor Jim Bates, a Democrat, served eight years in the House of Representatives, starting in 1983. Bates donated his congressional papers to SDSU after his defeat by Duke Cunningham in 1990. The guide to his papers, completed by the special collections staff, lays out an alphabetical listing of such subject categories as "Border Protection Act," "Development of Broadway Complex," and "Letters about Navy Procurement." The category names are written on the appropriate folders inside acid-free record cartons. The Bates's materials require five record cartons to house them.

According to the website "Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: 1774 - Present," not all of San Diego County's former representatives have donated their congressional papers. Among more recent representatives, Clair Burgener, Bill Lowery, and Brian Bilbray show no papers on the site's "Research Collections" link. To learn where their papers might be, I called the offices of both Bilbray and Lowery, the latter now with the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton, and White. Aides for each promised to retrieve the information but did not call back. In recent weeks Lowery has been scrutinized for his close relationship with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, himself under investigation for possible "earmarking" corruption. Several weeks ago, Democrat members James Copeland and Lynn Jacquez separated from the parent firm. Lowery's congressional papers would be interesting, for during his ten years in the House he served on the Appropriations Committee too.

Bilbray, of course, is not finished in Congress, having been elected on June 6 to replace Duke Cunningham in the 50th Congressional District seat. But prior to the special election, Bilbray had been out of office since 2000. During the campaign, his opponent, Francine Busby, used his post-congressional-service work as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to link him to corruption in Congress.

The congressmen might consider that they can receive a tax deduction for their charitable contribution to a qualified organization. If they believe their papers are worth more than $5000, they must produce a written appraisal from a qualified appraiser.

Even Cunningham, who left office in the midst of his eighth term last fall and is now in prison for corruption, has donated 300 boxes of congressional papers for future research. In a May 14 story on the donation to California State University, San Marcos, SignOn San Diego reported that the House of Representatives "encourages all members to preserve their documents upon leaving office." The words are those of the House Committee on Administration's John Brandt, who also stated, "The papers are considered the personal property of members of Congress upon their resignation or upon their leaving office.... It's up to (the members) what they want to do." That allows the representative to be selective in choosing which papers to donate and what restrictions to place on them. Cunningham had discussed donating his papers to Cal State San Marcos for several years prior to his departure from office.

A spokeswoman for the university's library tells me by phone that half of the papers it has been promised have arrived but are nowhere near being processed. She said that the whole collection is on "a seven-year block" at Cunningham's request.

The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress reports that Cal State San Marcos has the papers of another former North County congressman, Ron Packard. And it lists one-term congresswoman Lynn Schenk's papers as possessions of the University of Southern California. The website says both the Packard and Schenk collections are "unprocessed" and Schenk's "may have restricted access."

But Carol Bonomo, legislative liaison for Cal State San Marcos, tells me that Packard's papers, received in 2001, are now processed. And the USC Regional History Center's Dace Taube reports that Schenk's papers come not from her 1993-1994 congressional term, but from her work as business, transportation, and housing secretary under Governor Jerry Brown.

Libraries aren't the only repositories for congressional papers. According to archivist Jane Kenealy, Lionel Van Deerlin began donating his papers to the San Diego Historical Society in 1977, three years before being defeated by Duncan Hunter in the 1980 election. Although work is complete only through the first two of Van Deerlin's nine terms, volunteers have organized the materials loosely by subject matter in Hollinger boxes (acid-free cases with a flap-over top). The biographical directory for the Congress cites the size of the whole collection as 87 feet and states that "parts of the papers are restricted."

An item on a tuna-fishing crisis catches my eye as I survey the collection's guide in the historical society's research room. Opening a thick folder from the collection, I pick up sketchy details from a Van Deerlin press release dated June 12, 1965. "As of this afternoon only one vessel, the San Juan, remained in custody at Chimbote [Peru], after being seized early Friday 60 miles from shore. She carried 75 tons of fish. A Peruvian destroyer reportedly sent machine gun fire across the San Juan's bow.

"Owners of the San Juan said [the Peruvians] ordered her skipper to pay license charges and anticipated fine possibly totaling $10,000....

"Just released from the same port was the tuna boat Clipperton, after paying an assessment of $7138. Earlier this month the Sun Jason, making its way to port to seek help for a sick crewman, was seized and fined $2000 for alleged violation of Peruvian waters.

"Although the United States recognizes and enforces a three-mile territorial limit, Peru, Ecuador and Chile variously claim jurisdiction [of] 12 to 200 miles...."

The information was background to a decision by Van Deerlin to send "his administrative assistant to Peru to investigate alleged harassment of Southern California tuna boats....

"The congressman emphasized that his aide is not traveling at Government expense."

When the aide, Siegmund Smith, arrived in Peru the following day, he sent the Department of State a telegram, marked unclassified, which I pick up and read from the historical society collection. "Met at Lima airport 730 am by Don Mudd of Embassy staff," wrote Smith. "Embassy officials most cooperative and fully aware of grave implications of Peruvian actions."

Smith then mentions several U.S. military officials "all [having gone] to Chimbote, 250 miles up coast to investigate situation on the spot.

"Ambassador J. Wesley Jones called on Peruvian Prime Minister Fernando Schwalb and protested in strongest terms the unwarranted interference with American fishing vessels.

"Analysis of situation being made to ascertain overall policy of Peruvian government.... Strong possibility that it is in part at least independent action of port commander following April 30 change in Peruvian law which gives port commanders share of fines against vessels. Embassy informed by phone from Chimbote 830 am today that San Juan will buy license and expects to resume fishing....

"Am proceeding Chimbote soonest." A note at the bottom of the telegram says that it was "passed to the White House."

Two weeks later Van Deerlin received a letter from powerful San Diego businessman C. Arnholt Smith thanking him for assisting in bringing the Peruvian crisis to a close. Smith, who owned Sun Harbor Cannery, stated in the letter that he was enclosing a $500 check to cover the expenses of the Van Deerlin aide's trip to Peru.

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