Ronald V. Dellums Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Legislating for the People: Conversation with Ronald Dellums, former member of U.S. House of Representatives, 2/10/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Politics as a Vocation

Your goals in life were to go off and get a Ph.D. after you had gotten an M.A. in social work, but you were caught up by the Movement and were chosen by the Movement to be its voice, really.

Yes. And it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. As a matter of fact, when I came home at 3:00 a.m. in the morning from a meeting where I had been drafted to be a candidate for the Berkeley City Council, and I was a psychiatric social worker, for the next week I literally stayed in a fetal position for five or six days, called into my job deathly ill, you know with that voice that many of us use: [feebly] "I'm sorry, I can't come to work." Because I was overwhelmed by this idea that people wanted me to be in public life. I agonized over this. And then I finally went to my friend and I said, "Look, I love you, and I love you guys, but this is what you want for me, this is not what I want for me. I want my life back. I don't want to be in public life."

"It's too late man!" It was at that point that he said "There's no way, you're the guy. It's done. Dellums children Eric, Piper, and Brandy campaigning in 1970. That process can never be put back together. Everybody's expecting you to go out there and run."

So I had to suck it up and say "Well, let me give it my best and then pray we lose." Well, that was thirty-one years that I didn't lose, and so I ended up putting thirty-one years of my life in an odyssey in public life that was not something that I really chose to do. Again, the door opening up for someone saying, "Have you ever thought about going back to school to get a Ph.D.?" For my generation, for me, that was like saying, are you willing to go to Mars?

And then suddenly this door opening, because I loved ideas, I was fascinated by the ability to learn [that I got] from my family, as I talked about earlier. The ability to evolve, to grow, the grapple with ideas, to gather greater information, greater knowledge, and impart that was something that motivated me highly. I didn't want to be the guy out front raising hell. I wanted to be the guy in the back room when people said, "Well, how are we going to address the problems of poverty?" I wanted to be the guy writing the policy ideas. I had never had any idea that I would be the guy out front that would end up spending thirty-some years of my life in public life. It may seem romantic now in the year 2000, but in the sixties it was a compelling idea to respond to the responsibility of the call the serve.

When you were at Cal, you got a Masters in psychiatric social work, and I think you even say somewhere that you wanted to be a black Sigmund Freud.

Absolutely.

Did these skills that you acquired in social work become useful as you went to Washington to do politics?

Absolutely. In the school of social work, one of the factors that was absolutely reinforced was the ability to listen, because the whole premise of social work is to hear, to listen, to understand, to totally focus, to block everything else out and to listen, to hear people. That was an important skill. That was an important skill, listening to people in the community in town meetings, in the streets. It was also important to sit there as a subcommittee chairman or full committee chairman and block out all of my other frustrations and worries and totally focus on what's being said, totally focus on what's going on. It almost gave me a leg up. And many of my colleagues, many of whom didn't necessarily agree with me, would come up and say "You know, the one thing that I place a great value on, why I respect you?" And I said, "What?" They said, "You're the one person in these chambers that, if nobody else is listening, you're listening." Because in that training, in transcending from listening as a social worker to listening as an elected official, and in the discourse and the debate in the Congress, I figured out that the highest accolade that I could pay my adversary was to give that person my undivided attention. Many of my colleagues would have staff people write speeches for them. I rarely had that, I said, because my adversary will always give me my best speech if I'm willing to listen.

The other thing about social work: social work is talking about being non-judgmental, so it allowed me to be in the process, not judging other people but to judge ideas rather than to judge other people. And the notion of the dignity of the human being: even people who are in the most impoverished of circumstance or in the most psychotic of episodes are still dignified human beings. And that is very important. I happen to think that social work training is an amazing baseline for people going into public life, because I don't believe that you can be a reactionary social worker. That's an ...

Impossibility.

Absolutely.

I noticed in your book an amusing point that shows us what you were up against. One incident comes at the beginning of your career, and the other at the end.

When you were elected, the then-vice president, Spiro Agnew (soon to be indicted for criminal acts), attacked you as some horrendous radical from Berkeley, and you used the attack, in your own words, to define yourself. "If it is radical to oppose the insanity and the cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it is radical to oppose racism ..." and so on. So that you turned his words around to an affirmative definition of what you stood for and not what he said you stood for.

Then at the end of the career, toward the end of your term in Washington, from the center left, Ted Koppel on ABC News had you on [the show] and Koppel was saying that you were anti-military. And again you took to the floor to say, "That depends on your definition of anti-military. If what you mean by anti-military is that I oppose the utilization of our military to deal with problems I see as non-military in nature, then yes." And so on. So again and again you've turned around the words that people used against you.

Yes, because if I was going to survive, I couldn't let other people define who I was. It's important for you to define who you are, rather than to allow other people to define you. We tend to use words in this society without ever saying what those words mean. So for Vice President Agnew to say, "This is a radical who needs to be purged from American politics" -- now, for me to say I'm not a radical -- I don't even know what he meant by that. So here's press from all over the world, again, the hot light of controversy, don't be afraid of the moment, step up into the moment and use that moment to be educative. So that allowed me to say, not to defend myself from Agnew's attack, it allowed me to define myself to millions of people who wanted to know, "What is this Ron Dellums? Who is this 'radical' guy?" To say, "Well, if it's radical to do this, thus and so." And then people said, "Well, okay. If that's radical, that's cool. Maybe I'm a radical as well." If you speed it up, remember when then President Bush ran against Michael Dukakis and he leaned in and he said, "You liberal, you card-carrying liberal of the ACLU," and Michael Dukakis began to defend himself, and for the rest of the campaign he had allowed Bush to define who he was and he was on the defense, rather than stepping forward and saying, "If what you mean by liberal is...." Which [would have] allowed him to say to the American people what he stood for.

And in the second instance --

Ted Koppel.

Yes, and there's a big promo for the American people: "Did you know that the most anti-military, radical peace-nik ever elected to Congress is on the verge of becoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee?" So I said, "Look, why are you making me the bogeyman?" And then my assumption was that here's a guy who likes words, who sees himself as a very intelligent human being, so I went straight at that strength and I said, "Anti-military is a non-sequitur." Pregnant moment of silence. "What do you mean?" That allowed me to define, not allow him to make the assumption that there's a consensus of what anti-military means. We just use these labels and people start ducking from the labels. I say, "What am I ducking about? I am equal to you intellectually, I am equal to you as a human being. I respect you, you respect me. And in an honest discourse in a free and open society, I have to have the right to step up and define who I am. What gives you the right to define who I am? I am not here to judge you, who are you to judge me? And if we're going to deal with each other in a free and open society with a legitimate exchange of ideas in the marketplace, then I cannot put myself in a second-class role to you to allow you to assume the capacity to even think that you could judge me. So if I'm not going to judge you and you don't judge me, now there are two equals in discourse. So I don't accept the labels that you place upon me. And if there are other people out there who are wondering what all these labels are about, let me tell you who I am." I'm not allowing this guy to define me, because you can sit here for a hundred years and you will never hear me characterize the other guy, because I don't believe in that kind of politics.

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