William E. Dannemeyer’s voice held a note of excitement tinged with nostalgia.
The Orange County veteran of almost three decades of politics was wistfully recalling the glory years of 1981 and 1982. It was, he said, a brief moment in modern history when the Reagan revolution delivered tax cuts and conservative Republicans felt they had within their grasp the power to change the direction of the country, if not the world.
“They were the two most rewarding years I have had in public service,” he recalled last week.
But more than a decade later, the glow of victory has faded. And for Dannemeyer, personally, it has been replaced by defeat.
Frustrated with the workings of a Congress that would not join his occasionally lonely crusade against homosexuality and his stand favoring voluntary school prayer and a strictly balanced federal budget, the Fullerton congressman made a quixotic bid for the U.S. Senate and failed.
Although reluctantly conceding his loss after last Tuesday’s Republican primary, he said it was too soon to write his political epitaph. “I’ll be around,” the 62-year-old congressman promised.
Dannemeyer pledged to hopscotch the state with as much fervor as if he were on the ballot to help defeat “big-spending” Democratic congressional candidates in the November general election and to preserve the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Sounding like a candidate blazing the campaign trail, Dannemeyer charged that his Republican primary opponent, Sen. John Seymour, and Gov. Pete Wilson are “liberals (who) want to make the Republican Party a clone of the Democratic Party on economic and social issues.”
And President Bush, he complained, has allowed the party to drift away from fiscal and social conservativism that marked the opening years of the Reagan Administration. Unless Bush fires Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, Dannemeyer hints that he might oppose his party’s presidential nominee.
There is reason to worry, Dannemeyer said, over “whether the Republican Party, as an institution, will itself be infected at its leadership level with atheism.”
In three quick sentences, he lists what he believes is undermining America. “The judiciary, academia, public education, the news media, television and the Democratic Party. Those elitist groups in this country are dominated by the philosophies of atheism. (For them,) there is no God.”
Unmentioned was the issue that he has come to be identified with most strongly in his 14-year career in Congress: his open repugnance for homosexuality and his unrelenting efforts to--in his words--"bring the spread of AIDS under control.”
More than any other issue, congressional observers said, gay-bashing made him the man that many people loved to hate--or love.
“If you ever had anybody talk about Dannemeyer, it would not take more than 30 seconds before the issue of homosexuality would come up,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist with the conservative Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. “It became almost an obsession with him.”
The most often-told stories about the congressman’s handling of the AIDS issue involve either his 1985 statement that AIDS patients emit “spores” that can infect pregnant women and their unborn children--a claim that he quickly dropped--and a 1989 incident that drew a crowd of disbelieving colleagues when he inserted into the Congressional Record graphic descriptions of homosexual acts.
Gay rights activist Carol Anderson of the Los Angeles-based Gays and Lesbians Against Defamation criticized Dannemeyer for posturing behind a cloak of Christian values while practicing bigotry.
“He preached hatred,” Anderson said. “He did not preach tolerance or love or forgiveness. There’s nothing redeeming in Bill Dannemeyer. If I had to define obscene, it would probably be Dannemeyer.”
Among Capitol Hill insiders, he is credited with being persistent, straightforward and holding sincere beliefs in his causes, rather than using them for political gain.
Sometimes those traits helped him, but most often they did not, the observers added.
“I think sometimes (the Democrats’) job was easier when we went to the House floor and people saw that if there was something with his name on it, they would automatically vote against him,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Dannemeyer’s opposite number on the House Health and Environment subcommittee. Even the Reagan and Bush administrations often disagreed with Dannemeyer’s AIDS proposals, the subcommittee chairman added.
Ornstein said: “In many cases, he was isolated as a lone dissenter except for keeping public focus on his disdain for homosexuals.”
As a longtime proponent of the balanced budget amendment, and friend of tax watchdog groups, Dannemeyer proposed each year consideration for alternative federal budgets to those presented by the Reagan and Bush administrations.
But a political squabble kept him for six years from gaining membership on the House Budget Committee, where his views might have had some effect.
Eventually appointed to the budget panel in 1991, Dannemeyer’s departure at the end of the year will be a “terrible blow,” said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), particularly when the growing budget deficit is getting the political attention that Dannemeyer had long advocated.
Dannemeyer was not considered one who tended to “go along to get along,” observers said. But he could, by his own admission, be pragmatic enough to be a team player and vote for appropriations bills or amendments that included funding for the pork-barrel projects he usually denounced--even if it seemed to contradict his fight for spending cuts.
“So long as the Congress is going to be shelling out its money, I wanted to make sure Orange County got its share,” Dannemeyer said.
And as the ranking Republican on the Health and Environment subcommittee, Dannemeyer seemed to be enjoying more success in recent years.
During the panel’s discussions of a key AIDS bill sponsored by Democrats in 1990, Dannemeyer overcame the majority’s usual disapproval of his amendments, three of which he succeeded in attaching to the bill, including one calling for AIDS testing of prison inmates. It was an unusual display of acceptance of his proposals.
So why leave now?
Having won reelection to his northern Orange County House seat by substantial margins, Dannemeyer could have run and won for the rest of his life, he said.
And he had a problem with that.
“I believe in term limits and you cannot very well be sincere about that claim and then run for an eighth term to the House of Representatives,” he said.
Dannemeyer is proud of his record and the list of accomplishments he leaves behind. “I think I have been a responsible, effective voice in articulating the conservative positions on how we can fulfill the responsibility of the federal government without bankrupting the country,” he said.
“I don’t mean that I have been successful in achieving my goals. But there’s a voice here who is determined to manage the fiscal affairs of the U.S. government with a sense of prudence,” he added. “That, I think, I have been successful in doing.”