Ronald V. Dellums Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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Now you come to Congress, the radical from "Berzerkeley," to quote what was said. And you set about, over the course of your career, acting on these values and these principles on some of the major issues of our time. Let's talk a little about them and also your philosophy. You believed that all that you said about respect and dignity had to be applied to your adversaries in Congress, even on the conservative side of the aisle, and that in showing them that you could respect them they would come to respect you, and then you could argue about the issues.
But part of what was involved was learning the process, learning the details, the rules of the institution. Tell us a little about that.
I come to Congress with this incredible mantle, this tremendous burden --"Afro-topped, bell-bottomed, radical black dude from Berkeley wins election." So that's what I had to carry. I said, "If I allow this process to marginalize me as a gadfly, five hundred thousand people who are counting on me to make significant and important, often life-and-death decisions that affect them, their children, and their children's children into the future, will be diminished. So I cannot allow myself to be marginalized, otherwise I'm allowing half a million people to be marginalized. I'm allowing movement and beauty and nobility and principle to be marginalized, to be trivialized. So if I'm carrying this burden, if I'm carrying this responsibility, the weight of controversial ideas, I've got to figure out how to not be a controversial person. Because a controversial person carrying controversial ideas is a double strain. So let me get myself out from under this. If people begin to see my personhood, that I'm a multidimensional human being, that I'm prepared to deal with them substantively, then we take Ron Dellums off the table, because Ron Dellums is irrelevant. It's the power of ideas. Now let's you and I talk about these ideas." I said alright, that's one thing.
Secondly, I was a pretty good, jumping-up-and-down community activist. Well, did people just send me to Washington to change the venue of my jumping up and down? Or did they send me to Washington to become the best progressive representative that I could possibly be? And I said, they put me in the national legislature, I've got to try to learn how to become the best legislator I can. I could have kept carrying protest signs back in Berkeley, but they sent me twenty-five hundred miles away to do something different. So I sat there hour after hour to listen, to learn how to handle myself on the floor, to take note about what members of Congress, when they stepped into the well, could command the attention of my colleagues, what were their characteristics, what made them be able to command attention? How did this process really work on a formal level and on an informal level? I became both a participant and a student.
There were times when I had to stay up to 3:00 and 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning reading briefing books because I said I have to try to become the best that I can be, because if I allow these people to pat me on the head and see me as simply a rhetorical human being who is without substance and without depth, that they could put me on the wall and that's where I'd be for the next twenty years. And I said no, I've got to be able to come off that wall, try to bring dignity to the movements that I'm representing, to the causes that I'm representing, and to bring dignity to the constituency that I'm dealing with. And if that meant that I had to work harder than everybody else, then it was important. So that when Harry Kreisler turned on the television to watch a debate on the floor of Congress, you could see that your representative is well prepared, he's doing his job.
Not an ego trip, it's just that I have to do that in order to make sure that, coming from the left and coming from a progressive perspective, and coming from Berkeley and Oakland, was not a recipe for disaster, nor was it a definition of a shallow and superficial human being with superficial ideas. So I did have to learn how to master the process, and I did have to learn how to master the arguments.
I remember one day I came off the floor -- as a quick little vignette -- I came off the floor and I had given a speech about human priorities. And one of my colleagues walked up to me and he said, "You speak brilliantly about the human priorities," he said, "but Mr. Dellums, you're very naïve." And he patted me on the back. And I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You don't understand the Soviet threat. You don't understand the communist menace. You don't understand the national security problems we have." And when he walked away I went home and I said, no one will ever be able to do that again.
And so I got in bed with the books, with the missiles and the bombs and the force structure and the national security, so I'd learn, so I could walk on the floor of Congress and say, "Would the gentleman yield?" And the people would say, "Wow, you don't want to debate this guy, because he's ready." Again, having nothing to do with me, having nothing to do with my ego, but having to do with the fact that I realized somewhere along the way that I became in that institution the personification of these movements and these struggles from the sixties that were emanating from this community, and that I had a solemn responsibility to carry that forward to the maximum extent that I could.
There were many times when I would sit in my office late at night after being shouted down on the floor, in the dark when my staff was home, sitting there in my office just saying, whatever power that's larger than me please give me strength to survive, because I don't know if I can handle all of this. Just to get up and go back out and keep my head up, when there was a tremendous effort to knock all the starch out of me as a human being. I said, I've got to figure out how to get beyond the limitations of my own personhood to survive this, because people are counting on me.
And you did make a difference. Let's look at the MX and the B-2. Both were unsuccessful because of your efforts, and in the case of the MX, it was not just learning the details of this new weapon system which would have greatly escalated the arms race with the Soviet Union, but it also involved going to the people, and to people who were not your constituents, and educating them. In one instance, as part of your successful efforts to defeat the MX, you actually went to see the head of the Mormon church ...
... in his inner sanctum. And it was there, in talking with him, that you applied the lessons that you just described to us in Oakland in educating about the technicalities of the MX. Tell us about that.
Well, thank you.
We were way out in front of everybody on the MX. We understood the fallacies of the "window of vulnerability" and that our fixed-base missiles would become vulnerable to Soviet attack, and that they would launch their weapons. And my argument was, there's no such thing as a vulnerable individual leg of our nuclear triad: any Soviet planner would look at one leg but have to look at the other two surviving legs and know that if they attacked that we could respond, inflicting such incredible damage that life as we know it on the planet would be ended. And therefore the whole assumption upon which the need to build a mobile survivable force [was predicated] was fallacious. Well, initially [the response to] that argument was, "Here's that Berkeley radical way-out idea." But that whole notion became the central point that eventually brought down the MX missile. We suddenly were out in front. But one day I said "Look, they have decided they're going to deploy this weapon system in Utah. Let's go to Utah and talk to the most powerful people in Utah, the Mormon Church. And we set up an interview. And I'm probably the first, maybe the only, I don't know, maybe somebody came later. But at that particular ... I'm sitting there thinking I'm probably the first black person in the history of America to ever be in this room with this guy. And I sat down with him ...
This was Spencer Kimble, the head of the church.
Absolutely. And I went to see him and I said, "Look, I appreciate the audience. Thank you very much. I want to share these thoughts and ideas with you." I walked him through the arguments that were in support of this so-called mobile, survivable system and why I challenged that. And I knocked down every argument. He sat there and listened to me as we walked through the arguments, and then I said, "Now, these folks want to put this weapon system in your state." And I talked about all of the potential vulnerabilities that that gave him, because now, this mobile system was even more threatening to the Soviet Union because it was mobile, [we] would be moving it all around, and if we got into that kind of exchange, this is the first place that would go. I said, "So, sir, not only is this a fallacious argument--" and I'd walked him through the argument, "--this is also dangerous for you and your folks--" [invoking] his self interest so that he could engage. And I said, "--and I came here with the honest belief that if we could get on the same page and share the same amount of knowledge, maybe you and I could come to the same place, which is this is not a system that we ought to have. This system is frightening, it's unnecessary, it's expensive, and it's dangerous. And I believe that if you decided to stand up and say, through your church, that this is wrong, it would end this system. You have a powerful voice in this state, you have a powerful voice in the body politic." And it actually worked.
It wasn't that I was the only person, but I played my little role. We all have our moments, we all have these little roles. You can't get caught up in thinking you alone changed the world, but when the moments come and you step up to those moments to be faithful, the show up for the battle, sometimes there are unanticipated consequences. What I couldn't envision was whether he'd be with me or not. But they ended up, a short time down the road, calling a press conference opposing the deployment of the MX missile for the very reasons that we talked about. So for an African American guy from Berkeley, California, to go to the Mormon Church ... again, that was also coalition building, the need to reach out beyond the people who totally agree with us. That's the first level of coalition. The other challenging part of coalition building is to reach beyond the people who agree with you, to see if you can, in the process of shared information, can begin to create an environment or help shape an environment that would allow a flow from shared information to shared ideas and hopefully shared positions.
One other thing while I'm on that.
I remember one of my colleagues from east Texas. I had just spoken on the MX missile. Usually, when we got up to talk about these matters, all the conservatives would walk off the floor, "Well, the guy's doing his Berkeley thing." So after I finished I sat down and this guy steps up to me and he sits down and he said, "I'm Marvin Leath of Texas." He had never spoken to me, ever. He said, "I just want to tell you something. I just made a mistake." And I didn't know where he was coming from. He said, "You know what mistake I made? Usually when you talk, I go get a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette, you know, we leave the floor, you do your thing." He said, "But today, I made a mistake, and the mistake was, I said 'Let me stop and listen and let me hear what this guy's really saying.'" And he said, "I've made a mistake, and I just wanted to come sit down next to you and tell you that's the finest exposition on the MX missile I ever heard." That turned into a lifelong friendship, that turned into an invitation a week or so later to Killeen, Texas, to his constituency, and having me before a major audience in his constituency saying, "I know you want to know why this good old redneck from Texas has black ultra-left guy from Berkeley in my district, but first of all I love him, he's my friend, and that's important, but he also has something very important to say that we need to understand."
He stopped for a moment to listen. He got beyond that one dimension. We then shared a base of information, and in sharing a base of information we were able to come to the same position: the MX missile didn't make sense.
Another area where these -- we'll call them the "Dellums Oakland principles" -- were applied was on the issue of South Africa. And there you introduced the first legislation for sanctions in '74.
Actually it was early '72.
Early '72. And you played an instrumental role in the ultimate passage of that legislation and to the end of the Apartheid regime, to the extent that America was impacting on that process. When you finally met Nelson Mandela, whom you brought to Oakland when he came to the United States, Mandela said to you, "I've heard much of you. You gave us hope. We know of your good works." Talk a little about how that South African experience brings together all these principles that we have been talking about.
Often when you step forward to advocate, put a proposition before the public, enter it into the public discussion, the first thing people ask is, "Do you think you're going to succeed? Do you think this will work? Do you think this will be effective? Do you think you have a snowball's chance in whatever to win?" And I never tried to answer that question, because I said I would leave that to others and I would leave that to history, because at the end of the day we cannot control events, we cannot control outcome.
But I always believe that there are two factors over which we all have control: our fidelity, our faithfulness to our ideas, number one. You can control that, whether you're going to be faithful to the idea. And the second thing you can control is whether you show up for the struggle, whether you will show up for the fight.
The United States Congress was getting ready to debate an eleventh-hour bill on the floor, big sanction bill, in 1986. And it was a compromise version of sanctions, but at the grassroots level, among people in the movement, people were calling for American disinvestment of corporations from South Africa as a major way of bringing pressure, to take the economic support from South Africa. Well, fidelity and showing up for the fight, right? Never knowing, unanticipated, unforeseen consequences. I showed up for the fight, they gave us one hour to debate the Dellums Amendment and the nature of the substitute. At the end of the hour we figured we'd go down in defeat. Maybe we'd get a hundred and fifty votes, we could call it a moral victory. From the left we brought pressure, we redefined the center. But a drama unfolded. "The vote now occurs on the amendment offered by the gentleman from California, Mr. Dellums. All in favor?" "Aye!" There were more Democrats on the floor so we screamed aye loudly. Few Republicans, "no." "In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it." Well, for a brief moment I was going to have a psychological victory. At least we won for a second, because someone was going to call for a record vote and we'd lose. So the Chair's going, "I said, the ayes have it." Like, wake up, somebody, this is not the script! Who's going to call for a record vote?
Well, the Democrats wouldn't call for a record vote because I'm standing there and they're giving me the psychological moment. They knew that the Republicans would call, because they were opposed to this notion of disinvestment. A young Republican, Mark Soljander, is governing the bill. He made a decision in the quiet recesses of his mind that changed the course of history. He decided not to ask for a record vote. And suddenly the Chair was saying, "The ayes have it, the ayes have it. And the amendment carries." And everybody was saying, "Ron, you won." And I almost fainted on the floor. Because I had no idea that we would win, had no idea.
We could not control events, we could not control the outcome. But we could control being faithful and we could control showing up for the fight. And by exercising those two responsibilities, unenvisioned consequences: this guy made a decision. At the end of it he walked up to me and he said, "I made you a hero for a moment Ron." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "We didn't like the Democrats' proposal anyway. I respect you, but we might as well let the most radical proposal go through. It's going to die. It'll die aborning. It'll never see the light of day. It'll never be picked up in the Senate. So I made you a hero for a moment, but that's the end of it." And I looked at him and I said, "You know, I'm not sure you're right. Maybe we'll have the last laugh," I said, "because there's a political movement around the country, the anti-Apartheid movement, and tomorrow morning, every newspaper in America on the front page, every TV, every radio, is going to say, 'House of Representatives passed disinvestment bill, strikes blow at the Apartheid system in South Africa.'" I said, "You know something about movement and people? People are strengthened and buoyed by success, by victory, and rather than killing this bill, you have breathed hope and energy into the movement. And I believe that, though your colleagues control the Senate, they are now going to come under greater pressure, because the movement is going to step up, because nothing succeeds like success." I said, "Rather than killing this bill, my friend, maybe we'll have the last laugh. I believe that you have done just the reverse. You have stimulated movement, a level below which the House of Representatives will never fall," and that is history; they never went below that again. "And you've placed pressure on the United States Senate that will force them into this fray, and they're going to pass a sanction bill." And the rest is history.
So showing up, being faithful, learning all of the factors. If you're going to be there, be willing to pose the alternative, put it all out there. You have no idea what may happen. But if you're not faithful and you don't show up, there's one thing that you can guarantee, that your ideas will never see the light of day, that there's never any possibility of winning. That's why I don't believe in cynicism, that I think at the end of the day it's not cynics that change the world. You have to be hopeful and optimistic and upbeat. And you have to believe that you have a responsibility to step up, put your ideas on the table, and see where they go.
One of the issues that brought you to Washington was the Vietnam War. And you've lived with the lessons of that conflict, but there's a new world out there in which a new kind of intervention might be necessary for humanitarian purposes. I know that you've thought about it. Let's talk briefly about that. Help us understand how in politics one has to learn things, but not necessarily apply them in a rigid way.
I think there's no intellectual rigor in being narrowly focused ideologically, or to stay rooted in past ideas. The word "progressive" means to progress, to constantly think, to be in constant motion, constant evolution, constantly reassessing. With that as a backdrop, the Vietnam War occurred during the period of the Cold War, so we could apply, whether it's left, right, or center, a Cold War analysis to the American intervention: fighting the Cold War, East versus West, us versus communism in the proxy wars that we waged in other places -- Vietnam being a classic case in point. A Cold War. So suddenly the Berlin Wall comes down, the Cold War is over. The Warsaw Pact no longer exists. The Soviet Union dissipates. The Russians have an election, actually elect a president, something beyond our wildest imagination, what most of us never could have perceived. Without a shot being fired the whole thing crumbled. And suddenly we're now in a new era, so significant that we didn't even have a name to call it. We called it the post - Cold War era.
My view was, here's a magnificent opportunity to accept both a challenge and an opportunity to change the world in ways that we could not have perceived just a year, two years, five years ago. But we can't continue to view the world through the lenses of the Cold War, because the Cold War is now over. We no longer can see the world in bipolar terms, us versus them, East versus West. You know, the eagle versus the bear. Now suddenly it's a post - Cold War environment. Along comes Bosnia, for example, along comes Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti.
I would suggest Somalia was probably the first test of our post - Cold War "intervention." I felt very strongly about that, because here's America's first opportunity in the context of a post - Cold War world to play the role of peacekeeper. And many people, even many of us on the left, continued to view the notion of American troops in some other place through that narrow prism of the Cold War, because they never took those lenses off. And my point was that if we could challenge the right, if we could challenge the "militarists," as it were, to take off the lenses of the Cold War, then we from the left had to do exactly the same thing. We had to be intellectually honest enough to see that the world had changed and that in that regard, old paradigms, old concepts, old ideas no longer made sense. It's refreshing to be able to see new potential, new beginnings, new opportunities.
So Somalia, in my mind's eye, was an important test case to play the role of peacekeeper. Bosnia was an important place. But many people said, "Oh, my God, we're going into Bosnia. This is going to be another Vietnam." And it required me to have some courage at that point. People said, "Well, Ron, you can say what you want in the Bay Area. People love you." And I said, I've never made that mistake. Never. This is not about love, that you can do what you want to do. I'm not a tin god. People elect me because we respect each other and because there's a shared view of knowledge. The true test of whether I'm a leader is going to be at this moment, because I've got to fly against conventional wisdom. Because people are saying, we don't want to go into a Vietnam. And my point was that look, this is a new period. This is a different kind of intervention.
If two groups of people who have been warring and killing each other, fathers killing mothers, mothers killing fathers, everybody killing each other's children and aunts and uncles and grandparents suddenly finally come to the table and sketch out some very shaky peace of paper that is called a peace pact, maybe for a while until they're able to trust each other, because if you've been killing my family for a long time I'm not going to fall in love with you overnight just because we sat down at the table to work out some kind of agreement that says we're going to try to achieve peace. So if we're really, truly peace activists, does that just mean carrying a symbol with a headband on and going around and saying, peace, peace? Or are we willing then to get muddied up enough to stand between two warring factions to say, "I appreciate that you've stopped the shooting and the killing and you've separated. And maybe we need to stand here for a while until you begin to develop the confidences and start to work on the underlying factors that created the need to kill and shoot each other in the first place." That to me was a different challenge, a different opportunity, and we had to see that not through the prism of the Cold War. We had to see it through the opportunities that presented themselves in the post - Cold War environment. And I believe that these are new kinds of things.
As I looked at it further I said, okay, what must guide us through this period?
What are the principles that ought to guide our "intervention" in this post - Cold War new period of different kinds of intervention as the peacekeeper, the peacemaker? Take no sides, make no enemies. That must be our new mantra. Take no sides, make no enemies. If you're really going to be a peacekeeper, you're not siding. You're not looking for, as we did in the Cold War, who is the enemy, who are the bad guys. I'm on this guy's side to shoot you. No, no. Now we're peacekeepers. Make no enemies, take no sides. We are here for humanitarian purposes. We are here to help establish, help you establish a climate that will allow you to march off in the future without the need to kill and shoot each other, because we're helping to create an environment to allow you to deal with the economic, political, social, and cultural issues that gave rise to your killing in the first place. That's a very significant and very important role.
My last comment on this is, I would hope that our grandchildren would not look back on this moment and say, my God, they had a chance to change the world, and rather than paint bold strokes across the canvas of time, because of the their temerity they tinkered around on the margins, they didn't take full advantage of taking the world into the twenty-first century with wisdom and dignity and a sense of purpose.
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