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September/October 2000

'Peace Is More than the Absence of War':
Interview with Ronald Dellums
By David Reich

For three decades in Congress, Rep. Dellums never gave up the fight for justice

Ronald Dellums first came to national attention in 1970, during his initial run for Congress, when then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew called him "an out-and-out radical" who should "be purged from the body politic."

Of course, it was Agnew who, not many years later, was purged from the body politic, by way of indictment and forced resignation. Dellums, on the other hand, won his election and went on to represent California's Ninth Congressional District in the House of Representatives for 27 years, a distinguished career that culminated in his 1993 ascension to the chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Surely the most progressive man (and it's always been a man) ever to hold that powerful chair, he presided over a sweeping reassessment of defense policy that might have ended up transforming the US military had it not been cut short in 1994 by the GOP House takeover under Newt Gingrich. was purged from the body politic, by way of indictment and forced resignation. Dellums, on the other hand, won his election and went on to represent California's Ninth Congressional District in the House of Representatives for 27 years, a distinguished career that culminated in his 1993 ascension to the chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Surely the most progressive man (and it's always been a man) ever to hold that powerful chair, he presided over a sweeping reassessment of defense policy that might have ended up transforming the US military had it not been cut short in 1994 by the GOP House takeover under Newt Gingrich.

Dellums entered politics in 1967, a few years before the Agnew remarks helped make his name known to progressives and assorted political junkies all across the United States. A Berkeley social worker with a background in antipoverty work and community organizing, he had just won a generous financial aid package to study for his doctorate at Brandeis University in Massachusetts when friends and fellow activists invited him to a meeting where he was pressured to run for a city council seat. "I was confronted," he writes in his new memoir Lying Down with the Lions (Beacon Press), "with the painful choice of frustrating either the community leadership's expectations that I would run for office on their behalf or my family's expectations about our planned move. I felt confused, beleaguered, and adrift. It was like I had been run over by a freight train." Leadership, he writes, was "something I had really never sought." And yet he ran and won. The call to service rang too loud for Dellums, the grandson of a minister and the nephew of a national labor union president, to deny for long.

As an African American who had a diverse but largely white constituency both as a councilor and a US representative, Dellums puts great faith in multiracial, multiclass coalition politics based on self-interest and common concerns--a topic we discuss with him in this wide-ranging conversation, which also touches on the nature of leadership, the pitfalls of ideology, and Dellums's work as armed services committee chair. On the April day we spoke with him, in a meeting room at the Washington, DC, healthcare consulting firm where he now serves as president, Dellums wore a double-breasted suit with a muted stripe, a black and silver checked tie, and grey suspenders. The six foot, four inch, athletic-looking Dellums accompanied his words with graceful hand gestures, sometimes ticking points off on long, elegant fingers.

UUWorld: In your book you tell the story of your reluctant entry into local politics and then into Congress--essentially that you were a person with some political ideals but no interest in serving in public office who got dragged into it by friends and fellow activists. It reminded me of some figures in the Bible who start out underconfident and reluctant and have to be given a nudge by God--people like Moses, or like Jonah, who had to be swallowed by a fish before he'd follow orders to become a prophet. As a minister's grandson, did those parallels ever occur to you?

Ronald Dellums: I never thought about myself in those biblical terms, but I did realize I was doing something I had not set out to do in life. And once I was in public life, I saw that there were parts of me that had to mature, parts that had to constantly keep trying to learn so that I could become an effective person.

World: What kind of things did you have to learn?

RD: To think long term. To learn how to grow from experiences. I tell a story in my book about speaking at some peace rally--at the University of Wisconsin, I think, during the early '70s. I got carried away on the podium and said, "Many of my colleagues in the Congress are mediocre prima donnas who don't understand the level of human misery in this country or the world." That drew a standing ovation from all these young people who said, "Wow, here's this guy in Congress who's willing to say this!"

But when my colleague Wayne Hays read those words back to me on the floor of the Congress in the context of an amendment I had offered, I mean, I died on the floor. It was a very painful and expensive lesson. My first reaction was anger: I wanted to lash out at Wayne Hays. But then I went to my office and sat down and said, "OK, what do I learn from this, because I have clearly been humiliated?"

I came out of that experience saying, "Whether I like Wayne Hays or not, how can I challenge my colleagues to respect me if I don't communicate respect? How do I get them to hear me if it appears as if I'm not willing to listen to them?" I had to go inside myself. I had to say, "Wait a minute. I represent a half a million people, and I've come here committed to some ideas. Am I getting in the way of the ideas?" As I told my staff, "I have now become a controversial personality, and I didn't come here to become a controversial personality. I came here to articulate what, at this historic moment, are controversial ideas." I had to learn to say, to myself and my staff, "The issue is not personal. We didn't come here to fight with the guys on the other side of the table. We came here to deal with them."

World: Whatever lessons remained for you to learn, the people who initially urged you to run for office must have seen something in you that they didn't see in others who might have run instead. What do you think they saw, and why didn't you see it yourself at the time?
RD: I think they saw a guy who could communicate with the grassroots and with the intellectual community as well. People said, "This guy is a good candidate because he's from the streets but with a middle-class education--from West Oakland with a master's degree from UC Berkeley."

World: So you had an appeal across class lines?

RD: Yes. And then I think people saw I was willing to stand up, willing to speak out. At the time, I was a community activist. But I never saw myself as a politician because my view of politicians, I must admit, was fairly cynical.

World: What does your career say to other people who don't see themselves as potential leaders?

RD: That it's on-the-job training. [Laughs.] That there's no place that can prepare you for leadership. You learn as you go, and if you're reasonably intelligent, sensitive to your environment, and open to ideas, and open to change, you can do this. But you've got to have heart, and a fundamental commitment.

Also I think my life says you can do this without violating your integrity. Too many people accept the conventional wisdom that if you go into politics, you have to end up a prostitute, you have to end up fraudulent, you have to end up compromised. I think people who end up compromised are people who choose to compromise themselves. People who sell out choose to sell out. If you choose not to sell out, then you won't. If you choose to operate on principle, then you can. If you choose not to be afraid to lose, then it opens up many opportunities.

I asked myself at a certain point, "What's the worst thing that could happen to me? That I'm not elected?" I mean, if you're talking about taking my life or taking the life of my family, now that's some finality. But to not be reelected? As I told my children, "If I'm rejected, you have to understand that it's not your father being rejected; this is the ideas being rejected. It's not personal."

And the community had a right to be represented by someone who accurately reflected their ideas. I do believe in small-"d" democracy, and I'm not going to lie to them. I'm going to be open with them so that they can make a very clear judgment, so that if they want a conservative representing them, then they can have one; if they want a moderate, they can have one; if they want a moderate liberal, they can have one. Let me be true about who I am, and let people make those choices.

World: Why did Spiro Agnew--the vice president of the United States!--single you out for his hostile remarks when you first ran for Congress? After all, at the time, you were virtually unknown outside the San Francisco Bay Area.

RD: Well, the Bay Area represented an interesting part of Americana. Not only was it racially diverse, but virtually every single movement of the 1960s emerged there almost simultaneously. You had the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women's liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, the first Earth Day, disarmament, Black Panthers, Brown Berets, Grey Panthers . . . .

World: So you became a metaphor for all that?

RD: Yes, I became a metaphor for what in Agnew's mind's eye Berkeley represented in the 1960s. Remember, we're talking about the national security state, highly paranoid, highly paranoid. When Ron Dellums ends up on Richard Nixon's enemies list as one of the top 10 enemies of America, when Bella Abzug and Ron Dellums could be on a par with China and the Soviet Union as threats to our national security, that's incredible paranoia. That's sick. That's ridiculous. [Laughs.] It's extreme.

One other point: when politicians are attacked, they usually go on the defensive. "No, I'm not really a radical, I'm really this." And I had learned a long time ago from my parents, particularly my mother, that you define who you are, you don't let the other guy define who you are.

At my press conference the day after Agnew made his statement, this reporter goes, "Spiro Agnew charges that you're a radical. How do you respond to that charge?" Well, if you flip that forward to Michael Dukakis and George Bush, you get "You're a card-carrying member of the ACLU, you liberal, you!" Like liberal was a bad word. And suddenly, Bush was on the offensive, defining the terms and putting Dukakis on the defensive.

But when the same ploy was used on me much earlier than that, I said, "If Spiro Agnew means by radical that I oppose the insanity and cruelty and injustice and immorality of the Vietnam War, if it's radical to oppose racism and sexism and age chauvinism and classism and all the other levels and forms of oppression that are visited upon people, or if it's radical to want to eradicate poverty and hunger and disease, then I'm proud to be called a radical. But you're asking me, 'How do you respond to that charge?' What do you mean by charge?"

The press came to see Ron Dellums, radical guy from Berkeley, do the little political dance, and I chose not to dance. Their second question was, "Vice President Agnew charges that you advocate bringing the walls down. How do you respond?" Because taken out of context that phrase made it sound as if I wanted to burn the country down. I said "If Vice President Agnew had been diligent in trying to understand my comments, he would have learned that I stated, 'We've built walls very high in this country between classes, sexes, races, generations, and even religions, and if we bring down these walls, we would find out that there are millions of people out there leading very desperate lives, and if we coalesce across those lines, then we can change America and change the world.'"

And a hush fell over the crowd. Of those two questions--"how do you respond to the charge of being a radical?" and "how do you respond to the charge of wanting to bring the walls down?"--the first allowed me to define who I was, and the second allowed me to show what coalition politics was and why it made sense and was relevant.

World: While you didn't duck the label of radical back then--or ever--you talk repeatedly in your book about the pitfalls of ideology. What remains of radicalism, though, when you strip away ideology?

RD: Maybe I'm wrong, but I believe the world is constantly moving forward, that the march of life is a progressive march. I call myself a progressive because it means moving forward, constantly rethinking, constantly reassessing. And with a very tightly drawn ideological perspective, you get caught up in time warps, you get caught up in a narrow focus. From my perspective there are values that transcend time.

World: And that transcend ideology?

RD: Yes.

World: Can you give me an example?

RD: "Peace is more than simply the absence of war; it's the presence of justice"--a magnificent statement made by Martin Luther King. I don't think he intended that as an ideological statement; he intended it as a statement of principle.

World: Religious principle?

RD: Yes. And I thought it was an incredible statement because it helped me understand my role in a new way. I said, "What this man is saying is that there's only one movement, and that movement is the movement for peace.

What would America be like today--it is interesting to ponder--if the anti-Vietnam War movement had really been a peace movement in Martin Luther King's terms? What if, rather than, with the end of the war, going home to celebrate victory, the movement had stayed on the forefront and said, "This is simply ending a war, but this is not peace. Peace is justice. Let's get on with the civil rights movement. Let's get on with the liberation of women. Let's get on with the liberation of gays. Let's get on with the preservation of the environment. Let's get on with full employment and the livable wage, let's get on with child care." Suppose that big movement had stayed out there and said, "Ending the Vietnam War was step one. Now we're going to get on with the unfinished business of providing justice to people who desperately need it."

World: It sounds as if we've worked our way back to the subject of coalition politics--something you brought up a few minutes ago and dwell on at some length in your book. Can you talk about the relation between multiracial, multiclass coalition politics and the identity politics that have come to the fore since the breakup of the 1960s antiwar coalition?

RD: African Americans have some issues that are unique to African Americans. Latino Americans have issues that are specific to Latino Americans--speaking more than one language, et cetera. These groups can still come together based on a whole range of common concerns--people who have been challenged and oppressed, not provided opportunities in this society. And any issue that affects human beings affects people in these groups. What is a black issue? My position is that every issue is a black issue. Every issue is a Latino issue.

If I'm an African American and racial profiling has harmed me, yes, I want the community to deal with that question. At the same time, I have as much interest in social security, the economics of this country, global economics, environmental issues. Don't put me in a little category and say, "I'll talk with you about racial profiling, but I won't talk to you about the other 99 percent of issues." That is to challenge my humanity. That is to limit who the hell I am as a total human being. When you come to me, come prepared to discuss issues that affect me uniquely as an African American, but also come to deal with me across the full range of issues.

And as we talk about the full range of issues, it opens the door for me to coalesce with other people. Because as an African American I have environmentalist concerns--I may live in the inner city, where the greatest pollution is; I may live closer to the industrial parks. It allows me to coalesce with other environmentalists who are concerned about clean air, clean water, open space.

World: But is there a danger in that kind of coalition that concerns unique to one group--things such as racial profiling--aren't going to get heard?

RD: Well, part of your responsibility in the coalition is to make sure these issues do get heard. When you build a coalition based on common concerns, what happens? You also start to build trust, confidence, the ability to communicate with each other. And suddenly some aspects of the coalition who have been working with you on issues of common interest say, "I do see. I do understand." So here's a member of the white progressive community in a coalition with me saying, "Yes, racial profiling not only harms my brothers and sisters in this community; it harms me because I've got to deal with the fallout of racial profling--the anger and the hostility that come because when I walk down the street, I represent white America."

World: So in this kind of coalition people come to see their self-interest in broader terms than they did originally?

RD: Absolutely. Even those more idiosyncratic issues, even those unique issues--suddenly you're able to put those issues on the table because these are now your sisters and brothers that you're working with, that you're struggling with.

World: But the common interests are the point of entry?

RD: Exactly. And at some point African Americans and Latino Americans and Asian Americans are talking with gays who are saying, "Hey, man, I'm victimized as well. And when somebody says to you, 'This is a lifestyle issue,' I want you African Americans, I want you Latino Americans, I want you Asian Americans to understand that that's a lot of b.s. And that we have to come together to challenge oppression." And that's whether the oppression manifests itself at the level of race, sexual orientation, gender. Let's not let people play the game of divide and conquer. Because if we're over here sword-fighting over whether women's issues are less or more significant than racial issues, then we're never going to get to the question of justice, and the people we need to confront and the issues we need to confront never really fully get confronted.

Coalition politics are the most difficult level of politics, the most sophisticated level of politics, but I think they offer the only hope for creating a just society where everybody can function as a total human being. When you say, "Give me mine and to hell with yours," we'll never make it with those kind of politics.

World: You served as chair of the House Armed Services Committee in 1993 and 1994, during which time the committee started reconsidering virtually all things military--weapons systems, force size and structure, the military's mission. Talk a little bit about your role in the process and what kind of leadership it required.

RD: I went into the role of committee chair thinking, "I have my politics, and I'm more than willing to argue my perspective. But here, probably for the first time, a person from the progressive wing of the American body politic actually got to this point of influence. How do I use this most effectively? My most effective tool is education. I can't control how committee members vote, but I can start to set the agenda."

Now remember, I came into the chair at a strategic moment. The Berlin Wall had just come down; the cold war was over. So I could say, "Let's begin to think differently. Every step we take away from the Berlin Wall, every step we take away from the cold war is a step into the unknown, a step into challenge. But it's also a step into opportunity. So my colleagues, Republican and Democratic, senior and junior, let's come together to look at the issues that begin to emerge in the post-cold war world. I'm asking you to view this moment with an open mind because yesterday's paradigm no longer works."

In other words, instead of challenging them ideologically, I tried to challenge them intellectually by saying, "This is a new era. There are no experts. So let's you and me together become the experts. Let's start to look at the use of force in the post-cold war world. What do we mean by peacekeeping, peacemaking, peace enforcement? What are the potential scenarios of the future? Are we talking about World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or are we now talking about Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia?"

What I told myself was "I don't have to preach to people. Let's have hearings and ask witnesses to come up and talk about new ideas." And suddenly members were sitting there saying, "Whether I agree with this guy in the chair or not, he has opened the door to looking at the world in a different way, and one thing I can't disagree with him about: the world has changed. Whether or not we come to the same conclusions, the guy's challenging us to think about it differently."

Of course, the process had just begun when the Republicans took over the House in 1994. And they returned to the old paradigm, which was not to challenge each other intellectually but go back to the pork barrel: "What's in my district, what's in my state, what's being built in my district, what base is in my district? How do we maintain conventional wisdom? By saying we're weak militarily, that we have many enemies, that our military budget is shrinking."

World: Are you saying all these fears are a pretext, and pork barrel thinking is what's really behind our military planning?

RD: Oh, yeah! Peacemaking, peace enforcement are the scenarios of the future. But we hear guys talking about--still, at this late stage--missile defense.

World: If you could reconfigure the military, what would it look like in terms of size, structure, budget? Would we be spending $280 billion a year, the way we are today?

RD: No, because peacekeeping by its very nature is a communal thing, a global thing, a coalition approach. It means moving with allies. So you don't need to build a $280 billion military budget as if you've got to fight the world alone. And if you conclude that fighting major wars is too expensive in terms of human life, the threat to the planet, the incredible waste of human and economic resources, then you're not pushing a big military budget. You're trying to figure out how to bring people to the table to start talking.

And if we think about the world this way, the military starts to change in terms of how it's equipped, how it's trained, how it's sized. You're training differently because you're not trying to fight the last war--you're peacekeepers and peacemakers. You don't need B-2 bombers, you don't need weapons systems that are cold war carryovers. What do you need nuclear weapons for? The world is too small.

Of course, when the Republicans took over, they short-circuited the process and said, "We got to put the cuts back in," so that the other day I picked up the newspaper and read that the committee added $4 billion over what the Pentagon asked for. They're gonna buy things the military doesn't need but that will meet somebody's needs in some district, in some state, at some base, at some manufacturing plant. And the rationale will be "Didn't we learn something after the First World War? Didn't we learn something after the Vietnam War? We went into this deep hole, and we became weak!" And I'm saying, "What country in the world wants to jump on the United States? Who would be insane enough to want to cross that line? We've got other issues we need to come together to solve. There are other major threats out here that require our very strict attention."

As armed services chair, I always said that if we spend more money on our military budget than anybody else on the face of the globe by a factor of 10 and our cities are deteriorating, our people are grappling with each other across race, our social fabric is falling apart, then what are we defending? What in the hell are we defending?

David Reich is editor of the UU World.

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