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The Man Caught in the Middle : Base closures: As head of the eight-member commission, Alan J. Dixon is always in the hot seat. But he can handle the heat.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From behind a forest of microphones, Alan J. Dixon offered a proud and blustery defense of plans for federal base closures in California and elsewhere, trumpeting them as “right, so help me God.”

It was grim business, lightened only when the former U.S. senator from Illinois used a comic demonstration to illustrate how the politics of pork used to frustrate the efforts to scale back the military.

“Young men!” his voice suddenly boomed in a mock Dixie-accent of a now-deceased Southern senator (Dixon was too discreet to identify) who had staunchly blocked an Army base closure plan 25 years ago. “You go back and tell your bosses in the Pentagon that as long as Ah’m the Senator from the great state of Alabama, you ain’t nevuh gonna close a base in mah state.”

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The news conference erupted in laughter, and Dixon, far happier in the role of audience pleaser, beamed. For the moment he was again “Al the Pal,” the great conciliator, the populist Democrat who once carried every Illinois county, every Cook County township, every Chicago ward.

Dixon couldn’t carry a stick in California these days.

Already convinced that California had suffered far beyond its share of economic misery in previous base-closure rounds, state leaders were stunned and furious when the commission Dixon chairs recommended that McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento be shut down. The base is Northern California’s largest industrial employer, and the Pentagon did not want to lose it.

The Long Beach Naval Shipyard has also been targeted for closure by the eight-member panel. In all, 20 federal bases in California would be affected at a loss of 43,000 jobs--10,000 more than Texas, the next most-severely hit state.

“This is a bum job,” Dixon, who turned 68 last week, will tell you. “I do not recommend it to anybody.”

President Clinton has until Saturday to accept the commission’s recommendations or send them back for revision. With its 54 electoral votes, California is a must-win state for Clinton in 1996, and advisers fear that voters will be in a punishing mood if thousands more are left unemployed by base closures.

Even as Dixon unveiled commission recommendations that would generate $19.3 billion in savings over 20 years, there were news reports that the Clinton Administration was ready to reject it. Caught in the middle, Dixon finally told reporters, “I say there is some room for further review.”

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Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), former colleague and longtime friend, said of Dixon, “I don’t think it’s real pleasant for him [right now].”

Dixon scoffs at any suggestion that “this commission could lose any presidential candidate any state.” Still, at one point in the press appearance he jokingly acknowledged, “I got enough people mad at me now; I don’t need any more.”

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It’s a far cry from those halcyon days of Illinois politics when Dixon--born and raised in Belleville, Ill., just 20 minutes outside St. Louis--was perhaps the most popular man in the state.

After his election as Illinois secretary of state in 1976, he took the populist step of dumping a patronage hiring system for the civil service exam. Dixon won reelection two years later by 1.5 million votes, becoming the first candidate in Illinois history to carry all 102 counties, all 30 Cook County townships and all 50 Chicago wards.

It was part of an unbroken series of 29 consecutive election victories, from police magistrate when he was a student at Washington University Law School in St. Louis (where Dixon graduated second in his class), to the youngest person (age 23) ever elected state representative, to state senator, treasurer, secretary of state and, finally, two terms in the U.S. Senate.

While there, Dixon helped author the bill that created the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, calling it one of his finest achievements. Congress and the President were to accept or reject commission recommendations in total, without nit-picking. The aim was to insulate the process from politics, and it seemed to work. In the first two base-closure rounds, 1991 and 1993, the panel recommendations were accepted.

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During these years, Dixon prided himself as one of the most conservative Democrats in the northern United States, a politician with a fine sense of forging unity among colleagues, a man who could assure his handpicked staff, “You give me the issues, I’ll worry about the politics.” By his second term, Dixon held the No. 3 spot in the Senate as chief deputy whip.

“Some people have that gift; some people don’t,” said Simon, a liberal Democrat. “I think he was aided by not having any strong ideological moorings, so he was able to pull people together and build consensus.”

It all came crashing down after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings in 1991 when Dixon stuck to his promise, made on the Senate floor before the hearings began, to support President George Bush’s nominee. Nothing out of the hearings about the sexual harassment allegations dissuaded him.

In 1992, the Year of the Woman, Dixon lost the Democratic primary as those angered by his vote for Thomas voted for Carol Moseley-Braun.

He returned with his wife, Jody, to his native Belleville. Married 41 years, the couple have three children and seven grandchildren. Dixon took up a corporate law practice in St. Louis’ highest skyscraper, directly behind the city’s famed arch.

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Throughout his 1992 defeat, Dixon was always the practitioner of an Old World style of formality and protocol that now seems lost on the floor of Congress. The niceties were back as Dixon guided base-closure hearings. But in that setting, where California legislators came to plead for the jobs of constituents--only to be bitterly disappointed--Dixon’s little elegancies seemed oddly out of place.

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The chairman was gracious when he said, “My friend, Sen. Barbara Boxer . . . we thank you for your great service.” But days later, after the vote to close the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Boxer would say, “This commission went bonkers.”

When Sen. Dianne Feinstein appeared, Dixon said, “We’re privileged to have [Boxer’s] distinguished colleague, the distinguished senior senator from the great state of California.” But after the McClellan Air Force Base vote, Feinstein said of the commission: “One thing is clear, the process is skewed against California.”

And with another visitor’s appearance, Dixon told the audience, “We’re delighted to welcome a distinguished member of the House, my old friend, Rep. Vic Fazio.” But after the decision on McClellan, the West Sacramento Democrat left the hearing “angry . . . outraged,” declaring Sacramento “wiped out.”

As commission chairman, Dixon is responsible for assembling the 75-member commission staff. He supported and shielded the commission when the pressure was on. Although Dixon was only one vote on the eight-member panel, he was also a strong voice for cutting the fat out of the military.

Dixon was named chairman of the third and final base-closure commission in October. He brought a strong presence, constantly pushing for more base closures or realignments (which almost always means a shrinking).

“There was a concern [by Dixon] that we would become liberal and overtaken by emotion and therefore not provide the savings that the Secretary of Defense wanted,” said Commissioner Benjamin F. Montoya, a retired two-star admiral, who voted against the McClellan and Long Beach Naval Shipyard decisions. “If any of us hadn’t been strong enough to push back and still follow our own heads, it would have been easy for us to be intimidated by him.”

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As difficult a job as running the commission may be, Dixon’s tough, fiscal stance plays well back in Illinois, said Charles C. Smith, the commission’s executive director and a longtime Dixon associate.

Simon announced last year that he would not seek reelection in 1996, and Dixon said he’s been pressured to go for the vacancy.

“I’ve had Republican congressmen and senators ask me to run as a Republican and Democrats do the same thing,” Dixon said.

Simon said he believes his old friend has “moved beyond” that phase of his life and would be surprised if Dixon ran again. But Smith said he thinks Dixon is weighing the option “very heavily . . . I think he wants to be in it.”

Said Dixon: “I’ve declined to say anything [at this point]. I’m in this job until this job is over with.”

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