February 12, 1998
Ron Dellums entered the US Congress 27 years ago as a young radical in bell bottoms, having answered a call from his community to run for public office. He retired last week as the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Armed Services Committee. Elizabeth Farnsworth spoke to him about his career in public service and his time in Congress.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Congressman is Ron Dellums, the former anti-war radical who became a highly-respected chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He retired February 6th, after 27 years representing the district that includes Berkeley--with its once radical, ow mostly quiescent students--and Oakland, with its geographical divide between poor, mostly black flatlanders and affluent, mostly white hill-dwellers.
Dellums has received overwhelming support here since he first ran for Congress in 1970, when his district was 72 percent white. Because of redistricting and other factors, it's now more than 50 percent African American, Asian, and Hispanic. In 1996, Dellums won 77 percent of the vote. He grew up in this house in the flatlands, just West of Downtown Oakland.
His father was a longshoreman, his uncle an organizer of the Railroad Porters Union, whose civil rights activism influenced Dellums' thinking. Dellums joined the Marine Corps at age 18 in 1954, was the first member of his family to graduate from college, and got a masters degree in psychiatric social work at UC-Berkeley. In 1967, he was elected as part of a radical slate to the Berkeley City Council. He ran for Congress in 1970, on an anti-Vietnam War platform, and made no secret of his admiration for the Black Panthers, Fidel Castro, and other left-wing, third world leaders. In the House Dellums became well known for his critical but informed role on the Armed Services Committee.
He was the first African American to serve on it and was chairman during the two years after Bill Clinton first became president and before the Republicans won control of the House. While on the committee he voted against every use of American military force, from Vietnam through Operation Desert Storm, supporting the sending of troops only in a humanitarian or peacekeeping capacity. He often spoke out in defense of Congress's role in declaring war.
RON DELLUMS: The Constitution is designed to inconvenience one person from taking us to war. War is a very solemn and sobering and extraordinary act, and it should not be granted to one person. That's why the people who developed the Constitution of the United States said that it should be the American people, through their representatives, in a group-oriented process that would ultimately make that decision.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Republicans like Floyd Spence of South Carolina, who succeeded Dellums as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have praised him for his evenhandedness in that role and for his mastery of the details of the military budget, and Ohio Republican John Kasich worked closely with Dellums to limit spending on the B-2 bomber.
REP. JOHN KASICH, (R) Ohio: We can spend all day calculating all the things we don't agree upon, but we were for a moment in time able to pursue a common agenda, namely to end this B-2 Stealth bomber program and save tens of billions of dollars for our country. And it was just a great pleasure to work with him.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dellums was also a leader of the effort to end U.S. support for the apartheid government in South Africa, demonstrating and undergoing arrest many times as part of his campaign. He first introduced legislation for U.S. economic sanctions against South Africa in 1972, and is widely credited with getting them through Congress in 1986. His decision to retire--announced at an Oakland news conference in November--was an emotional occasion for supporters. Some had worked for him for over 30 years. I spoke to him recently at his office in Oakland.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why did you enter politics?
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS, (D) California: In 1967, people said, Ron, you have to run for the Berkeley City Council. And I said, okay, I'll do it, and I laid down literally my plans. I was on my way to work on a Ph.D. at Brandeis University. I laid that down, stepped into politics, and that was 30 some years ago. So it was based on a commitment. It was a time when people made commitments to each other, and we felt idealistic enough that our active involvement and participation in the process would actually bring change and could bring change.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How were you treated when you first got to Congress? You came from the radical tradition in Berkeley. You were an African-American man. How were you treated?
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: Well, I think the quote that described my election says it all. The quote that went around the nation and around the world was: "Afro-top, bell-bottomed, radical black man from Berkeley wins election," and that's how I walked in the door. And so I was perceived as the left-wing, Commie, Pinko, Black Panther from the Bay area that walked into Congress.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When you were made a member of the Armed Services Committee, what happened when you first went in to sit on the committee?
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: Well, at first, you know, they turned me down. And they turned me down because I was ostensibly a security risk because I was from Berkeley. They said, we'll never be able to have secret meetings; this guy will expose--it was bizarre--it was extreme. Remember, in Richard Nixon's top ten enemy list I appear as number six on that list.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you go in and there wasn't even a chair for you, is that right?
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: Pat Schroeder and I sat hip to hip the first day that we met because at that time F. Edward Abaer of Louisiana was the chairman, and the two of us were new people and I'm one person in front of Pat Schroeder, and there was only one chair. And everything inside me wanted to rage and wanted to strike back at the audacity of these people to disrespect us that way, but I turned to Pat Schroeder and I said, "Let's not give these people the satisfaction of thinking that they got to us. Let's take this tool away from them. And if it's okay with you, let's sit through this meeting with as much dignity as we can just to let them know how stupid they are and how dignified you and I can be." And we sat there, hip to hip, throughout an entire meeting. And at the end of it I think they felt like fools, not us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you choose the military as your concentration partly because you wanted to fight the stereotype?
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: I felt that as a person from the Bay Area who was talking not only about withdrawing from Vietnam but the mentality of the war, that going on the committee that represented all of that was the best place to be, because in Washington everything is about credibility. And I went there to gain credibility, and I knew that I was going totally against the grain, but I realized that I had to (a) learn how to master the process, master the issues, and gain their trust and confidence.
And that meant I had to work hard, because I knew that Les Aspin and others would be well prepared and if it took me till 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning to be totally prepared, I wanted to go to the floor with as much preparation and sophistication as I could muster, you know, to debate these serious issues, you know. And now it's all parochial stuff that gets talked about on the floor. So the substantive discussion and substantive debate more often than not is not there. And so the thing that fascinated me and drove forward started to go away. And the civility, how we deal with each other, whether we respect each other on the floor, the nature of the debate has radically changed. And so there are a multiplicity of reasons why it doesn't have the same attraction as it did 27 years ago.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You became chairman of the committee. By all accounts, you more than learned everything that you had to learn about it, and you would help craft a defense budget that you would then vote against. Explain that. How could you do that?
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: Well, because being a member of Congress meant that I represented my community; I needed to keep faith with the contract that I made, and that was to articulate these thoughts, hopes, and dreams and aspirations. We'd made that contract. Being chairman of the committee, my constituency was the members. And being chairman of the committee meant that I was responsible for making sure that the committee process worked and that eventually that committee brought a product to the floor of Congress that the entire Congress was willing to work on. So that was part of my job. Now, at the end of the day, if I felt that that consensus was to the right of where I was, I eventually had to act on that not just as chairman, I had to act on it, vote on it as Rep. Dellums.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Looking back, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: Right off the top, it would clearly be bringing sanctions against South Africa that led--helped lead to the freedom of Mandela and the freedom of the people of South Africa and a new reality in South Africa. When I first introduced the legislation to bring sanctions against South Africa, I was joined with one of my fellow African-American colleagues, John Conyers, after we had met with Polaroid workers back in 1972. And so when we introduced the bill to bring sanctions and disinvestment of American corporations in South Africa, it was a Berkeley, Commie, Pinko, Socialist idea, but later on it became an idea that people all over this country embraced because they understood it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What else? Just briefly, besides South Africa, what do you consider--especially in Armed Services, what do you consider your greatest accomplishments?
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: There are a number of weapons systems that never--you know, we went out against the MX missile, not got built; we went out and stopped them on the B-2; we went out and stopped them on a number of nuclear weapons; and so I think that there are policies, weapons, and money that is more appropriately spent in other places as a result of us being there. So if you ask me, why I had success, it was because I kept the faith and I never allowed them to compromise my integrity, compromise my dignity, or compromise my principles.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You grew up--if we look out this window--you grew up in West Oakland just beyond the fog there.
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you say to young people, the young men and women who are like you were then? What do you say to them now about public service?
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: My statement to young people is go out there and be and engage this process and it's not going to turn around overnight. You have to have tenacity; you have to keep walking up and down the same year and year out--it's a long-term commitment--it's a long-term view--but engage because it is your world. And you have a responsibility, and I finally say, when we were young people, we had the audacity to take on the whole nation and to try to change a whole country. And why are you sitting here, you know, and waiting for tired old men and women with gray hair to change the world for you? You need to engage, grab hold of this process, be involved. Do not allow your cynicism to take over. Cynics don't change the world; it's people with optimism and idealism and hope, young people. Believe you can change it, and you can.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Congressman Ron Dellums, thank you very much for being with us.
FORMER REP. RON DELLUMS: Thank you.