San Diego 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."