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The True Believer : Politics: Some call Rep. William Dannemeyer a bigot; others say he's a hero. All agree he never backs down, and enjoys a good fight.

July 11, 1990|ROBERT W. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the packed committee chambers, lawmakers stared in disbelief at Rep. William E. Dannemeyer, the Orange County Republican with the jutting jaw and ramrod posture, whose views on the decline of morality in the late 20th Century have become legend on Capitol Hill.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee had just announced a hard-won compromise on landmark clean air legislation. Dannemeyer, one of the most conservative members of Congress, was the first to offer an amendment.

If Congress were going to clean up the nation's air, Dannemeyer told his colleagues, it ought to go a step further and clean up the nation's airwaves. The six-term congressman then offered language to establish "airwave emission standards" and $50-million penalties to ensure that television stations do not broadcast pornographic programs.

Although the amendment was ruled out of order, it prompted one lobbyist to remark, "I hadn't seen anything as entertaining since Jim Watt," the former secretary of the interior.

The exercise in political theater came as no surprise to those who have seen Dannemeyer take the floor of the House of Representatives to lash out at abortion, moral relativism, the decline of the American greenback, what he says is the destructive influence of pornography, what he sees as the increasing power of homosexual activists, what he considers the politicization of the AIDS epidemic, and, most recently, Nelson Mandela.

Some call Dannemeyer a dangerous bigot. Others dismiss him as irrelevant. But to many conservatives, he is a genuine hero. And more than a few political observers who take issue with most of his views say Dannemeyer is a man driven by sincere religious conviction who acts as a lightning rod for debate on the most controversial issues of our time.

Just last month, as Washington was warmly welcoming Nelson Mandela, the deputy president of the African National Congress, Dannemeyer struck again.

In a speech on the House floor the day before Mandela addressed a rare joint session of Congress, Dannemeyer--infuriating many people--denounced the South African black nationalist, who was recently freed after spending 27 years in a South African prison, as an unrepentant terrorist and communist.

"Nelson Mandela is no Martin Luther King," Dannemeyer said. "He is more like H. Rap Brown or Willie Horton." Brown was a radical of the 1960s, and Horton is a convicted murderer who raped a woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison.

In a subsequent speech, Dannemeyer asked: "What is the difference between Nelson Mandela and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg," the Americans executed in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union?

"Mandela pleaded guilty."

The remarks prompted a spate of outraged letters to the editor and a scathingly critical column in the Washington Post.

Despite his chosen role as preacher to the House, there is more to Dannemeyer than his rhetoric. Behind the fire and brimstone, the congressman from Fullerton is not the relentlessly one-dimensional caricature his critics sometimes paint.

Dannemeyer's performance before the energy committee, for example, betrayed a sense of humor so dry it often goes unnoticed. The "clean airwaves amendment" was, of course, a serious expression of his alarm over what he perceives to be the demise of cultural standards.

But it also was a satirical, if deadpan, slap at the clean air bill itself, legislation Dannemeyer viewed as hopelessly burdensome and complicated. When the bill finally passed the House, Dannemeyer was one of only 21 representatives who voted against it.

While critics sometimes portray Dannemeyer as a bigot, one liberal Democrat said he has stood up for the rights of minorities. Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), who chairs a House Judiciary subcommittee on which Dannemeyer serves, recalled that Dannemeyer "was very indignant about the alleged discrimination against minorities and women in the FBI's hiring. I was pleased. It's to Bill Dannemeyer's credit."

There is one Dannemeyer quality that is evident to everyone: Those who love him and those who loathe him say the former prosecutor and state legislator, born in South Gate nearly 61 years ago, lives for a good fight.

"He's a true believer. He's a Lutheran elder who will not shade moral issues," said Dannemeyer's comrade-in-arms, Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove.

"If (Dannemeyer) thinks something is immoral, he says it," Dornan said. "There are precious few people like that in the House."

One of Dannemeyer's most severe critics--Thomas B. Stoddard, executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the nation's largest gay rights group--put it another way: "Most politicians avoid controversy because controversy simply buys trouble. Controversy buys enemies. Mr. Dannemeyer embraces controversy."

Dannemeyer concedes the point.

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