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.
“I’m a lawyer by profession,” he said. “I’m not intimidated by the adversarial process. I never have been. I’ve made my living in litigation. I sleep nights.”
A Dannemeyer aide recalled the time his boss recounted to a group of lobbyists the story of how Dannemeyer, an avid fisherman, had landed a 45-pound grouper after a wrenching, hourlong tug of war.
“One of the lobbyists looked up and said, ‘You must have been exhausted after that,’ ” recalled Michael G. Franc, Dannemeyer’s legislative counsel. “And (Dannemeyer) looked at him, and he smiled, and he said, ‘Sir, I was exhilarated.’ ”
Almost every public action he takes encourages the view that Dannemeyer gets a charge out of mixing it up with liberals who are out, in the words of one aide, to “ruin America.”
Last summer, Dannemeyer shocked--and apparently titillated--many on Capitol Hill when he inserted into the Congressional Record, the official journal of congressional proceedings, a lengthy attack on the influence of homosexuals on federal policy.
The most controversial passage, titled “What Homosexuals Do,” recited in clinical detail “the average homosexual’s favorite activities.” The passage was so graphic that it prompted Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.) to call for an ethics committee investigation of Dannemeyer for placing obscene material in the Record. The committee never took up the request.
Dannemeyer has written a book, published last fall, titled “Shadow in the Land.” In it, he asserts that homosexuality “is not undeniably an inherited orientation, but is probably a bad habit acquired in early childhood or puberty.” He also attacks gay rights activists for attempting the wholesale restructuring of American society by demanding “special rights,” and says: “We must either defeat militant homosexuality or it will defeat us.”
And there is more to come. Dannemeyer has vowed to push for a floor vote to expel from Congress Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who has admitted placing on his personal payroll a homosexual prostitute with whom he once had a sexual relationship.
One of the most liberal members of Congress, Frank also is one of two lawmakers who have publicly disclosed their homosexuality. (The other is Gerry Studds, also a Massachusetts Democrat.) The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has struggled with the Frank case for nearly a year.
“Right field doesn’t even begin to describe (Dannemeyer) in some respects,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a Congress watcher and political scientist with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “He’s really out in the bleachers.”
According to those who watch his performance in Congress, Dannemeyer pays a price for his outspokenness--or outrageousness.
He clearly makes many Republicans uncomfortable. In 1988, when he sought the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference, he won only seven votes. A year earlier, he lost out to two freshmen congressmen in a bid for a seat on the House Budget Committee, despite his well-known interest in fiscal affairs.
Some local officials complain privately that Dannemeyer, because of his staunch fiscal conservatism, often has voted against spending bills that benefit Orange County. But he did work hard to win approval for funds to begin construction of the $1.5-billion Santa Ana River flood control project, they say.
In the legislative arena, Dannemeyer has a mixed record. His bills, like those of most members of the minority party, are routinely put on the back burner by Democratic committee chairmen. His annual alternate budget resolutions lose by wide margins.
“He becomes so inflexible . . . that it becomes difficult for him to accomplish much of anything of what he wants,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the liberal Los Angeles Democrat who is Dannemeyer’s nemesis on the issues of AIDS and clean air.
Dannemeyer, Waxman said, “will seek opportunities to try to make his point even if it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. . . . It’s almost an assault on people, that this is what he believes and everybody else must be confronted with it rather than persuaded.”
Yet Dannemeyer has won some notable floor fights. In early 1989, he managed to turn a motion to adjourn the House into a symbolic vote on a Congressional pay raise that he opposed, and he prevailed. Last fall, he persuaded the House to accept strict guidelines on telephone “dial-a-porn” services.
More recently, three of his amendments to new AIDS legislation were adopted in committee or subcommittee. But he lost a 312-113 floor vote on the most significant amendment, which would have forced states to require doctors to report to public health agencies the identities of patients who test positive for the AIDS virus.
Despite Dannemeyer’s infrequent legislative successes, Ornstein said, “one of the things you can say about the handful of people in the Congress who verge to the fringes is that . . . they often, by stirring up the dust in areas people don’t want stirred up, get discussion going that might not otherwise take place.”
A case in point, Ornstein said, is Dannemeyer’s speech on Mandela. “While the analogy he raised about Nelson Mandela was ungracious, and for an awful lot of people, deeply offensive . . . it raised to another level of discussion the question of who and what Nelson Mandela is.”
Not everyone agrees. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen last week denounced Dannemeyer as “the renaissance man of bigotry.” His remarks about Mandela were “as repulsive a statement as Washington has heard in recent times,” Cohen wrote.
“He’s dangerous,” said Stoddard, the gay rights activist, who has debated Dannemeyer on television and in other public forums. “He plays upon people’s fears. . . . Dannemeyer calls himself a conservative and he invokes the mantle of American ideals, but in fact his ideals are, to my mind, profoundly un-American. For whatever reason, he holds animus toward a category of individuals that encompasses millions of Americans. That’s not a good thing. . . .
“Any individual in a position of power who preaches hatred or intolerance disserves the American public and promotes social disintegration. It’s as simple as that.”
Dannemeyer and his staff dispute the views that he is on the fringes of political thought or a bigot.
“The homosexual activists have said I’m an extremist,” Dannemeyer said. “But the fact of the matter is, my views (on homosexuality) reflect the views of probably three-fourths of the American people, poll after poll.” He noted that he won re-election in 1988 his 39th Congressional District, in north central Orange County, with 74% of the vote.
Dannemeyer “honestly is one of those guys who just does not hate anybody,” said Paul Mero, his press secretary. “Bill is one, believe it or not, to live and let live. The problem that he finds is when misbehavior becomes the standard. He’s not willing to put up with that.”
If there is a unifying theme to Dannemeyer’s world view, it seems rooted to his strongly held religious convictions and his belief in moral standards.
“To us,” said Mero, a devout Mormon, “it’s those who believe in a God against those who don’t.”
A son of German immigrants, Dannemeyer worked long hours at various jobs after his father’s ill health and the Depression cost the family its livelihood--a feed and grain store in West Los Angeles.
He put himself through Valparaiso University, a private Lutheran college in Valparaiso, Ind., about 45 miles southeast of Chicago, graduated from Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, and served for two years in the U.S. Army’s counterintelligence corps in West Germany during the mid-1950s.
He met his wife, Evelyn Hoemann, a Lutheran minister’s daughter, while living at a Lutheran hostel in downtown Los Angeles. They have a son and two daughters.
Over the years, his law practice and real estate investments have made him comfortable financially, if not wealthy by Orange County standards. On his latest financial disclosure form, he reported income of at least $80,000 from real estate holdings in addition to his congressional salary.
When Dannemeyer talks about homosexuality, which he does often, or the need for gold-backed currency, or Nelson Mandela, he speaks wistfully of the lost values of small-town America and of an emerging, new society he says has turned its back on what he calls the Judeo-Christian ethic.
In one of his Mandela speeches, he said: “These days . . . the world seems turned on its head. We care more for the rights of criminals than those of victims. . . . The doctrine of free speech has been extended to obscene art, flag burners and those who would subvert the Constitution. . . .
“Forget the right to the pursuit of happiness; you’re now entitled to happiness. And if you can’t find it, take it from somebody else.”
In his book, which has sold about 20,000 copies through mail orders, Dannemeyer echoes the theme.
In earlier times, Dannemeyer writes, homosexuals kept their sex lives private. “That was all society really asked of them--the right not to be affronted by militant immorality or perversion.”
Now, he continues, “homosexuals are proclaiming that they will no longer be satisfied with mere acceptance by society. They are now demanding official approbation.”
It is Dannemeyer’s fight against homosexual activists, and his efforts to enact federal laws to require doctors to report to public health authorities the identities of those who are infected with the AIDS virus, that have earned him the most enmity.
“Mr. Dannemeyer has an interest in homosexuality that goes beyond that of most gay people I know,” said Stoddard. “I suspect, frankly, only a therapist could explain it.”
Dannemeyer acknowledges that some believe he is obsessed with homosexuality.
“It has even been suggested that I must be a homosexual myself, not able to confront the hellish reality, and hence left to fight my true feelings,” he said in a speech on the House floor. “Let me try to put my work on this issue into perspective. I am preoccupied with the issue of AIDS and its alter-ego, homosexuality, like a family physician is preoccupied with a client family. No attention needs to be paid to a well family. . . . But when disease rears its ugly head, the family physician is there to help battle the affliction.”
Jacobs, the Indiana congressman who asked for the obscenity investigation, said he believes Dannemeyer’s “preoccupation with the gays is a fairly sincere one,” but added: “I don’t think it’s entirely fair. . . . If people are dealt that hand in life and are so enormously unpopular anyway, I don’t know that it’s exactly sporting to smack them around.”
But, as with most issues involving Dannemeyer, there is an opposing view. Said Republican Rep. Dan Burton, who has proposed mandatory AIDS testing for most Americans: “I think we need more congressmen like him.”