The Trick Is To Benefit Your District

— How best to survive? Should a member of Congress coddle his district or make himself a national name? After newspaper and television broadcasting careers, Lionel Van Deerlin in 1962 won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and served San Diego until 1980. As a House Commerce Committee member, he worked on several iterations of the national Air Quality Act. In 1976, he became chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications.

But, he tells me as we sit poolside outside his apartment in Point Loma, "You can't just go to the people and say, 'In the last two years I've managed to make sure that AT&T doesn't lock up the communications business for the future' without having something more practical for your district. So to keep getting elected, you keep an eye out for what you can do, and the trick, if you're with the in-party, is to get announcements that are beneficial to your district."

Van Deerlin, who turned 92 this summer, calls obtaining benefits for the home district "a wholesome objective." After all, citizens elect their congressmen largely to represent their local interests. "And you'd better not be too far behind, either," he says.

"I will say the Kennedy administration was very helpful to a new member in that regard. I got a call in my office one day that the president had authorized a Veterans Administration hospital for San Diego. So I was able to make that announcement, which was important to a lot of people, the only quirk being that I estimated it would be accepting patients by August 1967. And in August 1967 we were just breaking ground. So my announcement was a little rosier than the fact."

In 1967, Van Deerlin helped pass the Air Quality Act, which established anti-pollution standards states had to meet. "In the final passage of the bill on the floor of the House," he says, "I was so busy lining up votes in the cloakroom -- it didn't matter what anybody was saying [on the floor], it was going to be decided by the votes -- that the San Diego Union the next morning never even mentioned my name. Both in committee and on the floor, with one or two other members, I'd been instrumental in getting a California waiver [permitting requirements stricter than Detroit wanted]. And I felt somewhat abused until the Evening Tribune came out the same day with a seven- or eight-column story under the title 'Van Deerlin Saves Bon Homme Richard for San Diego Repairs.' The [aircraft carrier] was being sent back to the West Coast for repairs from Hawaii and had been ordered to go to the Bremerton shipyard in Washington State. I had made a phone call to the commanding admiral for the Pacific, who was headquartered in Hawaii, and I didn't talk more than five minutes. Whether the change was already decided, I don't know. I like to think I had something to do with it, but I couldn't be absolutely certain that my intervention caused the change. But this headline gave me full credit by name. So I felt these things, like hits and errors in baseball, they even out.

"The first time I attracted any major attention -- reluctantly -- was in early 1967 at the convening of Congress after the 1966 election," he says. "You may remember the name Adam Clayton Powell, black congressman from Harlem who had run afoul of the law in New York and couldn't enter the state from which he was elected without being arrested. He was staying down in the Caribbean and living it up. On the basis that a man in his legal no-man's-land would not be sworn into the Army, I announced in advance that I would ask, on the day Congress convened, that Mr. Powell stand aside and not be sworn in. The Speaker, John McCormack, was very upset with me, and he'd called me in two or three days in advance of the convening of Congress. 'Van,' he said, 'you don't seriously think that a member who's been duly elected is going to be denied membership, do you?' And I said, 'Mr. Speaker, you've been up in Boston, and I've been here in Washington, and, yes, I think that's going to happen.' Well, he had to call on me, of course. God, it was the most agonizing moment of my life, standing up, and here's Powell leaning over the back rail of the House floor, and I had to ask that he stand aside. And it was passed overwhelmingly. The green sheet," says Van Deerlin, ever the newspaperman, "the last edition of the San Diego Evening Tribune, reported in 120-point type: 'Van Deerlin wins.'

"The next time I was home," he continues, "I had a number of meetings around my district, and...there was this group of six or eight that had a portable gallows. They carried these gallows around and would be in the back of the hall wherever I spoke, standing, not saying a word, but with these gallows, ready to hang me in effigy. On one occasion, there was such a hubbub out at Neighborhood House that Bill Kolender, who was then community relations officer for the San Diego Police Department, thought it was getting dangerous. He ordered the lights turned out, took me into a side room, kept me there for about ten minutes, then rushed me out to an unmarked car at the curb. On both sides of the car, these guys are rocking the car. I felt like a South American caudillo headed for the airport. There was never, I'm sure, any serious danger, but police don't like to take chances. And that hung over me for a while because the people who were angry were an important part of my constituency."

During his 18 years in office, Van Deerlin worked with five presidents and through the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. I encourage him to speculate on whether President Kennedy, had he lived, would have escalated the Vietnam War the way Lyndon Johnson did. He doesn't take the bait. But he does think that Kennedy was "less obviously influenced by political considerations. Here was Johnson," says Van Deerlin, "just obsessed with the idea that people would think him, in contrast to Goldwater, somehow soft on defense. And I don't think anyone was ready to accuse him of that."

"In the beginning," I ask Van Deerlin, "what were your feelings about the war?"

"Let's see," he says, "the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was in 1964, the year I was running for reelection after my first term. And I was then, sadly, of the view that the administration had sources of information that justified the war. And I was trusting. I was one of [416] votes in the House for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution."

"How long did it take you to start changing your mind about Vietnam?"

"I think it was about 1968. In the South Bay, from the very start, there was Chula Vista Star-News publisher Lowell Blankfort, who had been adamantly opposed to the war. The publisher of the Oceanside Blade-Tribune, Tom Braden, who had worked for the organization that preceded the CIA, was strongly against it too. But I still clung to the supposition that those in charge had information that was unavailable to me. No elected official can safely assume that."

"It's surprising that, in the heart of San Diego's military community," I say, "those two editors were opposed to the war."

"And knowledgeably opposed," according to Van Deerlin. "They were both very good. But they caught a lot of hell for their decisions. Braden is dead now, but Blankfort remains my very good friend, even though before the 1968 election, when he was making his recommendations, he wrote a long and well-documented editorial about the reasons I should be retired. But then he concluded that given the other choice, the person I was running against, he would have to reluctantly endorse my reelection with the hope that I would change my ways. And his headline? 'For Congress' in 36-point type, 'Van Deerlin' in 14-point type."

I am curious about Van Deerlin's views on national communications. "Have there been any changes in broadcasting laws," I ask, "that have given rise to all these strident radio talk...?"

"Including San Diego shows," interrupts Van Deerlin.

"...and," I continue, "to the Fox News method of presenting content that it labels 'fair and balanced'?"

"Clearly, and I'm not one to say that it's an improper change," replies Van Deerlin, who was a proponent of deregulating the industry. "What it does mean is that the First Amendment has taken over totally in broadcasting. We used to have something called the Fairness Doctrine, which required that broadcasters give attention to public events but that they give adequate opportunity to be heard to both sides. This even has involved, in some instances, the extreme nonsense that [they] give representation to both sides in the same broadcast. Well, how do you do an important documentary if you don't take positions? The Fairness Doctrine required that you give what was called 'equal time.' And the Federal Communications Commission read that as equal by minutes and comparable time of day. In other words, you couldn't go on at two o'clock in the morning to give somebody an opportunity to respond to something that had been broadcast at 6:00 p.m.

"But that's out the window now. I think one improper aspect of [developments in communications law] has been that the same owner may have as many licenses within a given coverage area as he can afford. The purpose of licensing broadcast channels and bands was to limit the coverage that a single voice might have. What's his name from Australia, Rupert Murdoch, has even acquired American citizenship so that he cannot be barred from owning licenses, and his ambition, I'm sure, ultimately, is to have every radio band and television channel in the nation owned by Rupert Murdoch. That practically could not happen, but legally it could, almost."

Van Deerlin says that in the late 1970s his subcommittee stalled, in the face of many congressional sponsors, AT&T's attempt to extend its monopoly in perpetuity, which would have allowed it eventually to dominate future communications technologies. Early in the next decade, after he had left office, he says, federal courts ruled against the company, "using roughly the same language we had been speaking in our committee. If AT&T had gotten its way, the Internet would have been delayed indefinitely."

In 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for president, largely on the issue of Carter's failure to solve the American hostage crisis in Iran. Van Deerlin is critical of Carter for not taking stronger action against Iran. "It was just awful," he says, "to see a great nation's ambassadors paraded around Tehran the way they were."

On Reagan's coattails, Duncan Hunter defeated Van Deerlin for the District 42 seat in the House of Representatives. (The district covered downtown San Diego, everything south of El Cajon Boulevard to the Mexican border, plus Lemon Grove and Spring Valley.) The next day, Van Deerlin complained that television coverage of Carter's concession speech before the polls closed in California contributed to the election's outcome. But Carter's handling of the hostage crisis had set up a Republican charge that Democrats were soft on defense. "I don't know about other Democrats," Van Deerlin tells me, "but according to Hunter, Van Deerlin sure was soft on defense."

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