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Dante Fascell remembers that cold, rainy night in North Africa more than a half-century ago when he slept under a jeep and decided the course of his life. As a lieutenant leading a truck company under the command of Gen. George Patton, Fascell transported supplies and troops to the front, narrowly escaping Nazi artillery barrages and watching other men die.
"Me and my friend Dick Wight crawled under that jeep and the rocks were hard and it was wet," Fascell recalls. "I remember telling him, 'If we ever get out of this thing, I'm going to find out a lot more about how the world works than I know now.... I don't know anything at all now. Wars are started by men, and I ought to be part of the process to help solve these things.'"
Fascell was 25 years old, the son of Italian immigrants who raised him in Coconut Grove and saw him graduate from the University of Miami Law School. A description of the political career he launched after the war reads like a military campaign -- one post after another fell to his ambition. By 1947 he was a legislative aide in Tallahassee. Three years later he was elected state representative from Dade; in 1954 he won a seat in Congress from a district that covered much of Dade and all of Monroe County. He held that post for 38 years. During his congressional tenure Fascell was appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee, eventually elected chairman, and by his retirement in 1992 had evolved into a congressional powerhouse. He has known every president from Eisenhower to Clinton, and many other world leaders over four decades. He has come a long way from that jeep.
Fascell, now 81 years old, is suffering from colon cancer. He recently moved from Kendall to Florida's Gulf Coast, where he lives near a daughter, his grandchildren, and other family members. He works for the law firm of Holland & Knight in Tampa as an international business attorney. A small stocky man with gray hair, he moves slowly these days but his conversation is animated. He is famous for his warm, winning personality. At times he is flinty, a necessary quality for a hard-nosed lawyer and legislator. ("If I had to sum up Dante I would do it in two words: No bullshit," says long-time acquaintance and admirer Bernardo Benes.)
Fascell's move and his precarious health have led South Florida political figures, friends, admirers, and others to review his monumental career. Along with the late U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper, he is one of the two most powerful politicians that South Florida has ever sent to Washington. Fascell was not only a force in foreign policy, but he brought home tens of millions of dollars in federal funds: for Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, the dredging of the Port of Miami (later named after him), new bridges linking the Florida Keys, the restoration of Dade's beaches, and more. His donors included developers and labor unions; pro-dialogue Cubans and their sworn enemies, the leaders of the Cuban American National Foundation; the wealthiest of bankers; and the most liberal of environmentalists. "No one in the Florida delegation today has the kind of power he had," says former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre. "And God knows when our county will have that kind of power again."
Later in his career Fascell survived an increasingly conservative Cuban-American constituency by sometimes taking positions that contradicted his own political beliefs -- including voting for the embargo against Cuba.
Fascell's passion was foreign affairs. One issue in particular intrigued him: if and when the United States should go to war. For almost four decades he waged a guerrilla campaign to diminish the power of generals and presidents to involve the United States in war. He argued that Congress and voters should have a greater say about which wars should be fought. Fascell never won that battle outright. As late as 1991 he had to plead with President Bush to seek congressional approval for the Iraq invasion. By that time the young lieutenant who slept under the jeep in North Africa had learned how power worked in Washington.
Fascell didn't inherit a position of influence. Not at all. He was born in Bridgehampton, New York, on March 9, 1917, as World War I dragged on in Europe. (He was named -- ironically for someone who would spend a lifetime in politics -- after Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy.) His family, which would eventually include a brother and a sister, moved to Queens. Fascell recalls that his father started out as a laborer, "a pick and shovel man, who did any kind of work to support his family as long as it was honorable." Fascell's father worked hard, purchased a truck and steam shovel, then built apartments "even though I'm not sure he could read the plans," Fascell observes.
The brood moved to Coconut Grove in 1925. "My mother had a huge family in the New York area, about a dozen siblings with about a dozen children each," Fascell says. "My father wanted to get away from them." Fascell recalls the great hurricane of 1926. He opened a door during the storm and was blown head over heels from one end of his house to the other. He and the rest of the family survived unhurt.