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LOS ANGELES TIMES / INTERVIEW : Ronald Dellums : After Years of Seeking Military Cuts, Now It's the Official House Mandate

April 11, 1993|Robert Scheer

WASHINGTON — When he was first elected to Congress 23 years ago, Ronald V. Dellums was charged by his constituents in Berkeley and Oakland to speak out against the Vietnam War, to attempt to cut the military budget and to push a strong civil-rights agenda. He did not fail them. Dellums, a 57-year-old former Marine, has been a strong but often lonely voice cautioning against foreign military adventure and the ultimate costs of dependency on ever larger defense budgets.

Now, in one of those sweet ironies of history, he is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, charged with presiding over the dismantling of the military-industrial economy he warned against.

Few on the powerful committee would agree with all of Dellums' programs for America, but when seniority presented him as the logical candidate for the chair, there was nothing but praise from his colleagues of all political persuasions. "He always listens and lets you know where he stands. He is not a back-stabber," says Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-San Diego), who served on a subcommittee that Dellums chaired. And conservative Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) praised him as "gentlemanly and fair."

It is not that Dellums has mellowed on policy matters, and he and Dornan have been on opposite sides of virtually every military-related issue. But he has proved highly effective at raising his issues within the restraints of congressional manners. Dellums is as amazed by this turn of events as anyone. "When I first started down this road, if someone had told me that I would be here 23 years later," he said during a recent conversation, "I would have said, 'you're crazy.' Eventually, I learned patience, I've demonstrated that I have endurance and here's my opportunity to make a difference."

What he wants to make a difference on is the thorny issue of converting the military economy to peacetime purposes. Last week, the Speaker of the House appointed Dellums as the co-chair of the economic conversion task force.

Dellums feels strongly that the media has trivialized his views and those of other black members of Congress. As he told a meeting of newspaper editors recently, "You don't understand the pain of being a black elected official, carrying progressive ideas, when people in the media could render you invisible with a flick of a pen. What's welled up inside me is 20 years of pain, and if you ask any Black Caucus member, they feel exactly the same way."

Question: How much of a mind bend is it to suddenly assume one of the most powerful posts in Congress?

Answer: That power stuff is what you guys write about in the paper, but for those who have to do it, it's hard work. Anybody that goes on an ego trip in this job has got to be insane. I get up every day really humbled by the fact that there is so much that I don't know. I enjoy the challenge of it. I read two or three hours every night, I've got a good staff.

Q: But you have been described by the media as a radical in the context of Congress.

A: The ideas that I walked in here with, 22 years ago, were ideas that were born in the streets in the peace and civil-rights movements. The reason that people protest is because they feel their point of view is not being effectively expressed. The deal was that I take these ideas inside the system, and that's exactly what I've been doing. When the media wanted to make me the Afro-top, bell-bottomed, radical dude, I had to live with that image all this time.

Q: What did the media miss?

A: I've been offering an alternative military budget with plans for conversion to peacetime for 12 years. But when the Black Caucus would call a press conference on that, not one member of the established press would dignify it by showing up.

Robert Scheer is a contributing editor to The Times.

Q: You have military bases in your district, as is the case throughout California, and they represent the most serious job-training program for disadvantaged youth. What will come in its place?

A: The military budget is not a jobs bill. The military budget ought to represent our definition of national security based on a rational assessment of threats and what we perceive to be our appropriate role in the world. Seventy percent of that budget--$200 billion--was directed to fighting a protracted war in Europe with the Warsaw Pact, a threat that no longer exists. But as you start coming down, the impact is a human impact, because there are people in communities adversely affected and economically dislocated, and that's real.

Q: How do you resolve that dilemma?

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