PRINCIPLED CRUSADER and savvy strategist. A self-described radical who chaired the House Armed Services Committee. A member of the establishment who was arrested in street protests. Oakland Rep. Ronald V. Dellums spent 27 years in Congress defying people's expectations and following his conscience. Here is an excerpt from his new autobiography, ``Lying Down With the Lions: A Public Life From the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power,'' published by Beacon Press:
DURING the quiet days of summer, when campaigns tend to fall into a lull until Labor Day ends summer and kicks off the fall election season, Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked my campaign -- and me -- during a speech he gave in Arkansas.
In the overblown alliterative style for which he was famous, he condemned the campaign of a dangerous extremist running for Congress from Berkeley, California, declaring that I needed to be ``purged from the body politic.'' In post-McCarthy America there was still no room, in the view of the Nixon White House, for serious and substantial dissent.
The confrontation between the counterculture, centered on the ``Left Coast,'' and the Nixon White House was a political and cultural conflict that would transcend these players and endure through to the end of the century. It would find expression in the implacable hostility directed against President Bill Clinton by congressional Republicans and pundits a quarter of a century later.
But in 1970 it catapulted me suddenly into national prominence even before my arrival in D.C., helping to create a caricature of me that would linger for decades.
On the night of Agnew's speech, the phone rang late in the evening. Kermit Scott was on the line, saying, ``Ron, you won't believe this. You've been attacked by Vice President Agnew.''
Exhausted from the pace of the campaign, I'd already gone to bed, and the phone call had awakened me from a sound sleep. I was in no mood for a joke like this -- and my staff had joked around about how great it would be if Agnew would bring some attention to our campaign during his nationwide campaign against the ``rad-lib'' senators who were opposing the administration's war policy.
``Don't joke around with me,'' I said. ``I'm bone-tired. This is the first night I've had a chance to get a decent night's sleep in quite a while.''
Scott protested. ``No, no. It's true. He called you a radical extremist at some big fundraiser in the South.''
Now fully awake with nervous energy, I was stunned. ``Really?'' I paused to think for a moment. ``Call a press conference for 10 o'clock tomorrow morning and I'll be there.'' I hung up the phone. My heart was pounding. Despite my exhaustion it took me hours to get back to sleep.
A moving moment
Agnew attack inspires support for campaign
The next morning I was nervous as I dressed and then drove across Berkeley and into North Oakland to attend the press conference. After parking and before I could cross the street to our campaign headquarters, I looked over my shoulder and saw an elderly white woman walking toward me very slowly with the aid of a cane. She looked in my direction and asked, ``Are you Ron Dellums?''
I said, ``Yes, ma'am. I am.''
``That's good,'' she said. ``I've just walked 10 blocks from my apartment to give you this check.'' She reached into her pocket and pulled out a check for five dollars.
``It's not much, but it's what I have, and I walked all the way here to give it to you. Anyone that Agnew attacks has to be a good person, somebody I want to support.''
Her face was so warm and her expression so sincere that it brought tears to my eyes. I suddenly found myself embracing her. Then I stepped back and thanked her as I accepted the check. She turned to walk the 10 long blocks back to her apartment.
I wiped my cheek and crossed the street and entered our campaign headquarters. It was jammed with local, national and international press. In terms of media, this was the biggest thing that had happened in the campaign -- even bigger than our decisive victory over Jeffrey Cohelan in the congressional primary.
Kermit Scott met me at the door. As my campaign manager, he had a great interest in trying to manage the conference for maximum advantage. He handed me a press statement that he had worked up with Mal Warwick and other campaign staff.
``I don't want to read a statement,'' I told him. ``I have nothing to be defensive about. I don't need to hide behind a statement.''
My response troubled Scott; he was sure that improvising was not the right way to approach a situation involving this much press scrutiny. In his mind, this was an event a candidate dreams about: The press would provide millions of dollars' worth of free publicity or notoriety. He wanted me to take my time and speak carefully.
``At least read through these, so you'll know what he said,'' Scott urged. He handed me a stack of a couple of dozen press clippings.
As I took them, I realized that my hand was trembling and that I was literally too nervous to focus on and read what was in front of me. Even had I wanted to, I probably could not have spoken from a prepared text.
But with the eyes of scores of reporters from throughout the world glued on my every move, in order to mask the trembling and nervousness I acted as if I was speed-reading the clippings.
The truth of the matter is that I never saw a word. When I had finished flipping through to the last page, I looked up at Scott and said, ``Time to go.'' I had no idea where things were going to go; I had no idea what I was going to say. I had decided to just make myself available and see what would happen.
I sat down at the press table. The camera lights went on. ``I have no opening statement,'' I said. ``I am prepared to answer your questions.''
After a moment of stunned silence, one member of the press took the initiative: ``Vice President Agnew charges that you are a radical extremist who should be purged from politics. How do you respond to that charge?''
Leaning into the glare of the lights, toward the mass of microphones nearly dripping off of the table, I answered, ``If it's radical to oppose the insanity and the cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it's radical to oppose racism and sexism and all other forms of oppression, if it's radical to want to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness and other forms of human misery, then I'm proud to be called a radical.''
Another hesitation, and then the second and what would be the final question: ``Vice President Agnew charges that you advocate bringing the walls down. How do you respond to that charge?''
``If Vice President Agnew had been diligent in carrying out his duties, he would have determined that my statement was made in the following context: We have built walls very high and very thick in this country dividing the races, the classes, the sexes, the generations and even the religions. I believe that if we bring down those walls that divide us, what we will find are millions of people of all sizes, all shapes, and all colors leading desperate and miserable lives. Once we understand that fact, we can then bring all of those people together into a coalition to improve the quality of their lives.
``So, yes,'' I said, ``I do advocate bringing down the walls -- the walls of racism, sexism, and all the other `isms' that represents the way we victimize and oppress people. Next question, please.''
There were no other questions.
Reflecting now on that moment, as I have done many times since then, I recall that it was very clear to me at the time that most members of the press didn't care who Ron Dellums was -- they came to see a caricature engage in a defensive dance in an effort to deflect the ``charges'' put on the table by another politician.
In those few moments when one finds oneself at the center of controversy and in the white-hot light of public scrutiny, an opportunity exists to be educative. Rather than get trapped in personality or defensiveness, I have always sought a way to communicate the larger message.
If the administration felt threatened by our politics and our movement, I was going to seize this opportunity to tell millions of people, most who might never have heard of me, what it was we were really up to in Berkeley. I was searching for the phrases and the tone that could communicate our message on the broad winds of the media's frenzy to other potential members of the coalition that was emerging from the East Bay.
I was also angry that the press had been willing to be so easily used by the administration in its reaction against the movements I represented. Why else would the media merely reiterate Agnew's ``charge'' instead of asking what political differences existed between Agnew and me that would have sparked his diatribe? It disappointed me that the press did not seem to see the manner in which it was being used to advance the White House's interest in its fight with the movement.
In addition, the press's lack of interest in the ideas at issue was disheartening.
The question, Was I a radical? had made me realize that I could not allow the media or Agnew to define my politics, or me. I had to define both, and with my response I believe I not only took away the ``legitimacy'' of the attack but also advanced my own vision of the process and substance of necessary political change in the country.
The second reporter's question provided an extraordinary opportunity to define and underscore the whole notion of coalition politics and the potential that existed in people coming together on the basis of their mutual self-interest.
Nearly 20 years later, all of my instincts and experience screamed for Gov. Michael Dukakis to understand the need to answer boldly and to shift the paradigm in a similar fashion when he was asked to respond to the Bush campaign's charge that he was a ``liberal'' and a ``card-carrying member of the ACLU.''
Regrettably, his defensive answer not only betrayed his lifelong political record but it allowed Vice President Bush -- again with a complicit media doing his service -- to inappropriately define his opponent throughout the balance of the election. I believe that had Dukakis defined the substance of his beliefs and declared the label ``liberal'' either applicable or irrelevant as one wished, he would have moved his political agenda forward and avoided losing control of his own campaign.
Media too accepting
Political mudslinging given too much credibility
It never ceases to amaze me that the press -- despite the public's growing distaste for negative campaigning -- continues to take the political characterizations that candidates make against each other at face value and turn them into ``news.'' Certainly it is the extremely rare candidate who runs against somebody by saying their opponent is a great person. But to dignify unfair charges, name-calling and mudslinging degrades the political process and ill serves constituencies who need information on a candidate's program -- not slurs by his or her opponents -- in order to discharge the most solemn obligation of citizenship.
Years later I would upbraid my own campaign's decision to characterize an opponent as a ``Reagan Republican'' and would publicly condemn the scare tactics used by candidates whom I had endorsed for municipal election.
``It is not for us to characterize our opponent,'' I told my staff. ``Just tell people what we believe and stand for, and then let them make up their own minds about how to cast their votes.''
In the end, I came to believe that the vice president's behavior constituted an extraordinary example of the paranoia and hostility aroused in some circles by the movement for justice, equality and peace. It struck me that winning this election might be more meaningful than I had earlier imagined; that it was crucial to prevent the administration from delegitimating a point of view shared by millions of Americans; that serving in public office might after all be the best way for me to contribute to the advancement of a noble set of ideas.
In my heart I knew that eventually the nation would have to acknowledge the value of our analysis if we were all to avoid the social trauma and dysfunction that arise when the needs of the people are constantly ignored.
Reprinted from ``Lying Down With the Lions,'' copyright Ronald V. Dellums, by permission of Beacon Press (www.beacon.org).
© 2000 Mercury Center.