WASHINGTON — Blue-blazered and white-shirted, wearing a blue tie with tiny American flags, Justin Dart Jr. seems more the patriotic professor than the combative advocate for the handicapped.
Forced late last month to resign as commissioner of rehabilitation services after harshly criticizing Education Department management, he seems more like a man who just got liberated than one who just got fired.
He wheels his chair next to a flag that dominates a wall in his apartment near the Education Department Building in Southwest Washington, obliging a photographer, then tells a visitor of an outpouring of calls and letters from people who are angry that he was fired.
"Many have called to indicate their moral support and want to know what they can do," he said. Others have written and telephoned Congress, the White House and the department.
Thus, in losing the job to which he was appointed in September, 1986, Dart has gained a cause. His firing is focusing unprecedented attention on problems in the Education Department and on his personal 20-year battle for the rights of the nation's estimated 35 million handicapped.
Such is the contradiction woven through the life of Justin Whitlock Dart Jr.
His father, the late Justin Dart Sr., was the wealthy California industrialist who raised huge sums of money for the Republican Party and helped persuade Ronald Reagan to enter politics, in the process becoming a charter member of Reagan's California "kitchen cabinet."
But until he switched parties in 1972, the younger Dart, who is 57 years old, strongly supported Democrats, attending the inaugurations of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
"There were some years we didn't meet at all," Dart said of his father, who died in January, 1984. "He was so intense about his politics, and I was so intense about mine."
Despite their early political differences, Dart said, his father--known for his blunt views in unrefined language--"never tried to intimidate me to support his ideas." He called his father "a great man," adding: "He taught me a lot. He was straightforward. He was a person who held very high standards for himself and for me and others. He expected us to do whatever we did with a passion and with a conscience."
Dart said, "We did agree on one thing: the importance of democracy and the democratic process. He told me to participate in the democratic process as if your life depended on it because it does."
They became closer toward the end of his father's life, said Dart, who has been confined to a wheelchair since suffering polio in 1948. He has a brother--also a polio victim--three half-brothers and a half-sister.
Problems With Paternalism
Explaining his rejection of the Democratic Party, he said: "I gradually came to appreciate the importance of independence and liberation from too much paternalistic central government."
Yet it was his charge of Republican paternalism that drove the Reagan Administration to demand his resignation, which he submitted Nov. 25. It becomes effective Dec. 15.
The simmering problem boiled over at a congressional hearing on Nov. 18, when Dart set aside testimony the Education Department had approved, delivering instead what he called a "statement of conscience," a stinging condemnation of the system in which he worked--a system he said was characterized by "paternalistic central control."
Paternalism was so bad, Dart told The Times later, that whenever he wanted to send anything by Federal Express, he was required to get advance approval from his boss, Madeleine Will, or a "high member of her staff."
In his testimony before the House Education and Labor subcommittee on select education, Dart said his program, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, was "afflicted . . . by profound problems in areas such as management, personnel and resource utilization." The program, budgeted at $1.5 billion a year, makes grants to states, helping them provide training and education that will make handicapped people employable.
Dart's remarks were too much for the Administration to swallow. Choosing between Dart and Will, the wife of conservative columnist and Reagan ally George Will, the Administration asked Dart to leave.
'The End of Justin Dart'
Loye Miller, spokesman for Education Secretary William J. Bennett, said Dart was fired from his $72,500-a-year job "because he stood up and attacked his boss in a hearing. When he attacked Madeleine Will, he attacked Bill Bennett. And that was the end of Justin Dart."
On the first of this month, Dart made public his resignation. Then, the letters to President Reagan began.
"We were shocked, profoundly saddened, and even angry at this great loss of opportunity and waste of talent," wrote the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.