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Going Out Gracefully After 18 Years in Office

June 15, 1986|BARRY M. HORSTMAN

It was the quintessential Election Night loser's scene--one that not even Hollywood could improve upon for pure pathos. Flanked by a teary-eyed wife and crest-fallen campaign workers, the dejected candidate sat amid the clutter of balloons and discarded campaign signs, empty beer cans and half-eaten hors d'oeuvres. Wearing a sweat shirt saying "Van Again," Lionel Van Deerlin had just learned that, after 18 years, San Diegans did not want to send him to Congress one more time.

"You just don't want to be rejected," Van Deerlin said softly the night of Nov. 4, 1980. "You want to have some say about when you retire. You don't like to have the voters do it for you."

Five-and-a-half years later, the moment remains etched in Van Deerlin's memory--and always will. Yet, from the outset, Van Deerlin faced the defeat--which he admits was as much the result of his own overconfidence as the Reagan landslide that boosted the candidacy of his opponent, Duncan Hunter--with the same grace and humor seen throughout his nine-term congressional career.

In his concession remarks, regarded by political observers as among the most gracious uttered by anyone in recent local election history, Van Deerlin observed wryly: "Having been elected by the people in this district for nine consecutive elections, it would hardly be appropriate to say that they've taken leave of their senses this time."

Today, Van Deerlin continues to use the loss as a prop for his self-deprecating humor, particularly when he finds himself sharing a stage with his former congressional colleagues from San Diego, Clair Burgener and Bob Wilson, both of whom retired.

"Burgener and Wilson decided to just up and quit," Van Deerlin says. "But I would never do anything like that before checking with the voters. And when I did, 53% of them said it would be just fine with them."

Van Deerlin concedes that he still occasionally "misses the action, the sense of being in the center of things" found in the rarefied air of Capitol Hill. However, he stresses that he quickly adapted to his sooner-than-planned political retirement, noting that Congress was "a hell of a lot simpler and more pleasant" at the beginning of his career than at the end.

"Oh, there's a twinge of pain sometimes, but not very often," he said. "Within about six months after I lost, if someone had come to me from the (voter) registrar's office and said that they had found 10,000 votes that had slipped behind a file cabinet, I'd have told them to go bury the damn things. And I'd say the same thing today."

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