• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— "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."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!