Bill Dannemeyer, RIP

For six years on Capitol Hill, I worked for Congressman William E. Dannemeyer. It was the first real job of my 35-year political career. Now “Mr. D” is laid to rest after his own tireless career as a lawyer, judge, California state assemblyman (as a Democrat), U.S. congressman (as a Republican) and saint or sinner depending upon your worldview.

The numerous obituaries I’ve read nearly all sound the same: indefatigable, unapologetic, principled, laser focused, relentless, scrappy, combative and confrontational. These same obituaries are filled with other descriptors: homophobic, bigot, despicable, horrible and as his congressional nemesis for many years, Henry Waxman, called him “a mean and hateful person.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen dubbed him “the Renaissance man of bigotry” in 1990 and The Advocate, the gay flagship magazine, later included him on its list of “the 50 biggest homophobes of the last 50 years.”

Like I said, he was a saint or sinner depending on your worldview. To me, he was a hero.

Of course, it’s difficult for me to criticize him because I wrote or crafted nearly all of the words for which he was vilified then and still now: the infamous “What Homosexuals Do” statement he entered into the Congressional Record 30 years ago as of June 29, 2019, the comparison of Nelson Mandela to H. Rap Brown and Willie Horton, his 1989 book Shadow on the Land: Homosexuality in America,” his mocking “Clean Airwaves” committee amendment to the Clean Air Act, his school prayer amendment to the U.S. Constitution, his expulsion resolution of Barney Frank, etc.

I really never was cut out to be his press secretary. I remember one time he asked that I arrange a press conference to which nobody showed up. Sitting in silence with him in an empty room in the bowels of the Capitol, he turned to me and said, “You did notify the press didn’t you?” While a frustrated question in the moment, it also was a beautiful example of his very dry sense of humor. In that same setting I convinced him to stop chasing the media and start making the news himself. And we did.

Beyond press secretary, I had a knack for legislative strategy, House rules and “pressure points,” as he called them. “Forget everything else. Just focus on what will have the most impact and stick with it.” With my preparations he passed serious restrictions on “dial-a-porn,” singlehandedly killed a congressional pay raise, put a stop to two federal sex surveys of children and nearly defunded the National Endowment of Arts, missing by only a three vote swing.

Bill Dannemeyer was fearless. At the height of the federal AIDS debate, he received many death threats because of his public health approach to that terrible disease. Nearly every speech he gave in the D.C. area was preceded by a thorough room search for bombs by Capitol Hill police dogs. When all was clear, he would deliver a disciplined, thoughtful, no-notes speech. I once asked him how he could maintain his composure under the circumstances. He said, “That’s my time to say what I want. I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.”

He knew the names of all six of my children. He was forgiving of my shortcomings. I prayed with him – a big gesture on his part given his Missouri-Synod Lutheranism and my Mormonism. He showed total confidence in my work and even enjoyed my riskier political suggestions. He had a mischievous smile when he knew we were about to upset the status quo. I lived for that smile.

Only once did he refuse to deliver remarks I had written for him. It was a “one minute” speech before the House officially began its work for the day. The title of the of the piece condeming the Soviet Union for invading its neighbor was “If Gorbachev is such a nice guy, why does he have a map of Afghanistan tattooed on his forehead?” Without a smile, he looked at me and said, “I choose not to make fun of a person’s facial blemish.” It’s funny that that’s where he drew the line after everything else I got him to say!

He loved four things in life: his sweet wife, Evie, his family, the baseball Angels and a righteous fight. His disdain for Washington, D.C. ran deep. When he would stop in to say goodnight after a long workday, I would ask, “Going home?” To which he always replied, “Paul, home is in Fullerton (CA). Right now I’m going to the house we own in Maryland.”

Any reputation can be easily dismissed, for good or bad, on account of circumstances. Whether thought of as “conservative icon” or “anti-gay crusader,” Bill Dannemeyer was a creature of times and circumstances. He served throughout the Reagan-Bush era and left Congress in the year Bill Clinton won the presidency. Fiscal conservatism still had meaning, as did social conservatism. Homosexuality was a far from settled debate, scientific or otherwise. And, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, Mr. Dannemeyer was the ranking minority leader on the Health and Environment subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce committee – he was the tip of the spear in the culture wars of those days.

He was a Christian man. He saw everyone as a child of God – even his political enemies. He saw people dying of AIDS as “poor souls” and often paused silently to reflect on the suffering and tragedy in their lives. In fact, any perceived callousness projected upon him by his political enemies was probably because of how much he loathed that such a serious disease had been politicized. It angered him. And he took out his anger on politicized advocates.

I never heard him use foul language or tell an off-color joke. Only once was I disappointed in his judgment and that was regarding a scheduling misunderstanding. He was otherwise unfailingly loyal to his staff.

I remember sitting behind him at a subcommittee meeting, chastising Chairman Waxman for not allowing our witnesses to testify. Waxman assured the boss that he had given us every allowance for our witness list but that someone on our team had failed to submit the list in time. Though Waxman was 100 percent correct, Mr. Dannemeyer flipped on his microphone, protected the staffer’s failure and reiterated his objection. Dismayed, Waxman demanded a public apology right then and there. The boss turned off his microphone, turned his chair to face Waxman, leaned in close to him and said quietly but sternly, “I will never apologize to you.”

Yes, he was in the wrong. But he was fearless in the face of evil.

His heart was big and magnanimous. Personally, he helped Sally and me buy our first home. Professionally, I almost had him convinced to vote against the first Gulf War – arguing the “defense” of Kuwait was simply a blood for oil horse trade – though he eventually “voted with the President.” Even so, he allowed me to write a piece for the Congressional Record titled something like “A conservative case against the Gulf War.”

And, while surprising to some, he supported a bill granting World War II Japanese-Americans financial reparations for the atrocities of wartime interment. I asked him why. He told me that he met with an old Japanese woman in his district whose story convinced him reparation was the just thing to do. Bill Dannemeyer was no ideologue. His strong sense of justice always trumped any lure of ideology.

While I am hurt and angered by the horrific ugliness in the comment sections of his many obituaries, I knew a good man. I knew his heart. He taught me grit and to never quit. I admire him to this day. While I saw him only once or twice after working together, I could see he was a different man after his beloved Evie had passed away in the late 90’s – he was companionless after 44 years of marriage.

For any late-in-life shortcomings, I give him a post-Evie pass. What heartbreak didn’t diminish in him, eventually dementia did. He lived to three months shy of 90 years old but, in many ways, a big chunk of him had passed when Evie died.

May God bless his unapologetic and determined soul. He was a conservative icon of the times and I was fortunate to go along for the ride.

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