By Michael E. Miller
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His father worked as a milkman, and Dante attended elementary school in Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, then advanced to Ponce de Leon High School (now a middle school), where he played violin and clarinet in the school symphony. He won a music scholarship to the University of Miami and graduated with a law degree in 1938.
The Depression coincided with his school years and provided Fascell with a different kind of education. "You should just be glad you didn't have to live through that, brother," he says. "One day you're comfortably fixed and the next day you're in debt over your head and no way to pay it back. It took my father 30 years to pay off his debts. We never starved, but it was no picnic."
Fascell watched other classmates and their families struggle through even tougher times. He also witnessed Roosevelt's sweeping social programs. "The Depression shaped all our lives and gave us a social conscience," he says today. "It sensitized you to people's problems. It has affected me all my life. Everything that spurred me on was an attempt to deal with those problems." (The federal aid Fascell won for destitute Cuban exiles in the early 1960s, "before they had either money or votes," would be of great political advantage to him later on.)
After law school Fascell joined a two-man firm in Coral Gables. A year later he signed up with the National Guard. "When Hitler marched into Poland in 1939 a friend and I decided to join before he killed all the Jews in the world," says Fascell. "By early '41 Roosevelt started getting the country ready for war and we were called up for active duty." That same year he married Jeanne Marie Pelot, whom he met while playing in a dance band.
In 1942 Fascell graduated from Officer Candidate School. "I was a 30-day wonder," he says of his abbreviated training. He commanded a truck company with the Third Army in North Africa, trying to stop the Nazi master of tank warfare, Erwin Rommel. He also served in Italy.
After two and half years in war zones, he celebrated the Allies' victory while home on leave. His experiences at the front left their mark. "He was like a lot of men who went to war," says Gregory Bush, a history professor at the University of Miami. "The war taught him to look at the big picture, the big world out there, and not just the town he was from. He made it his life." By 1946 Fascell had joined the Chamber of Commerce and the Young Democratic Club.
In fall 1946 he campaigned for Democrat Bill Lantaff, who won a seat in the legislature from Miami. After the election Fascell took a job as an aide to the Dade delegation in Tallahassee. When Lantaff quit to run for Congress, party leaders urged Fascell to run for his seat. "I told them I'm the old Marine type, I prefer to be not on top of the hill but behind it." Fascell must have been as unconvincing then as he is now about his ambition: He ran and won in 1950. When Lantaff decided to quit Congress in 1954, Fascell succeeded him again. "I told my wife I had no agenda and didn't expect to make a career of it," he recalls. "It was a way to learn how decisions are made in the democratic process." But Fascell knew he was on his way to where decisions were made about wars.
He arrived in Washington at the height of the Cold War. Paranoia was in the air. In the early 1950s Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin conducted a national witch-hunt for communists, persecuting left-leaning Americans for their political beliefs. The paranoia eventually died down, but the Cold War lasted almost the entire 38 years of Fascell's congressional career.
After two years in Congress, he lobbied the congressional leadership and landed a much sought after seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was in the committee's ornate nineteenth-century meeting space that Fascell molded his career. Wearing short-sleeve shirts under pinstripe suits, he packed his meerschaum pipe with Captain Black tobacco and convened subcommittee hearings. "That was when I started to keep my 'Save the World' file," he recalls. He stuffed it with scraps of paper about ideas to head off armed conflict -- notions of propaganda, global economics, et cetera. "I said I would put them into effect some day and in time I did."
The young legislator was also fighting for his political career. Civil rights bills, sparked by the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, hit the floor of Congress and many South Florida voters didn't like it. In 1956 dozens of congressmen signed a document called the Southern Manifesto that asserted states' rights and assailed desegregation. "He refused to sign it," says Bush, the UM historian. "He was never a radical, but when he talks about that time he calls himself a 'bomb thrower,' his way of saying he was radical on the issue of race compared to other Southern legislators."
Though Fascell felt the heat, he voted for all the major civil rights bills of that era. Of 78 Southern Congressmen, only fourteen -- including Fascell -- voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1966. "He got piles of hate mail," says Bob O'Regan, Fascell's legislative aide and later his chief of staff for 28 years. "But he still voted for the bill."