He Made Dade

Battling cancer, veteran pol Dante Fascell talks of war, Cuba, and a lifetime of putting Miami on the map

How did Fascell survive? "How do I know?" he shrugs. But there were reasons. The Dade Republican Party of the 1950s and 1960s was extremely weak. His overwhelmingly Democratic constituency contained some blacks and a growing number of liberal Jews transplanted from the Northeast. For everybody else Fascell helped wring money and favors from Washington. "I never gave a damn what anybody's politics were," he remarks. "If they came to me for something, I listened, and if I could help them I would." He also built political goodwill by stumping for other Democrats. In 1960 he served as Dade campaign chairman for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Fascell built a reputation for getting things done and winning re-election.

Though Fascell lived in Washington, Jeanne Marie and their three children spent the school year in Kendall. "He wanted his kids to have roots like he did," she says. Fascell visited Dade on weekends, making the political rounds, pressing flesh, listening to requests, campaigning for Democratic candidates, being the ultimate pol. (He was attending a political function at the Coral Gables Country Club with Miami Mayor Robert King High and other officials in 1963 when they learned that President Kennedy had been killed.)

Every Labor Day he threw a free picnic. It was the biggest political gathering in Dade, attended by hundreds of people. He was known simply and universally as Danny. "He never forgot a name and he always said hello to you before you said hello to him," recalls former State Sen. Ken Myers. "He was amazing that way."

Meanwhile, back in Washington, he was learning that people who wage war also play politics. The Defense Department, citing the communist threat, expanded its budget and power. Fascell was an anti-communist but he was wary of the generals. He had a surprising ally: Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, former commander in chief of the American forces in Europe. "I'll always remember that statement Eisenhower made: 'Beware of the military-industrial complex,'" recalls Fascell. That was January 17, 1961, just before the president left office. "That really sticks in my mind," Fascell says with admiration.

Near the end of his term, Eisenhower opposed the building of new B-52 bombers, but Congress allocated funds for them anyway. "Many communities have an economic interest in the military," Fascell says. "It's big money, whether its a base or equipment being manufactured. If you try to close a base, you hear from the Ladies Club. You have a fight on your hands."

Nobody wanted to risk putting his constituents out of work, and House members took care of one another by not forcing the issue. His more experienced colleagues told him to play it safe and vote for a hefty military budget. Though some of Fascell's colleagues contended such spending was for the good of the nation, "it was really a way to keep your neck out of the noose as a politician," he says. He grimaces and shakes his head, but Fascell learned that lesson. When Congress debated closing the Homestead base in 1991, more than 6000 jobs were at stake. Though he used his legislative muscle to help keep it open, it was closed permanently in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew.

Fascell was ever the pragmatist. He never put his head in a noose, either in Washington or at home in Dade. He never waged a quixotic frontal assault on racists or the military-industrial complex. Instead he committed to long-range goals. He cultivated good relations with the State Department. "He knew more about foreign policy than the secretaries of state he worked with because he was at it longer than any of them," says Vic Johnson, who worked for eighteen years as a Foreign Affairs Committee aide.

Fascell was confronted by a growing American imperialism that he says was based on chauvinism and militarism. "As long as you had the economic power and military power, nobody could stop you," he declares. You kept your nuclear arsenal well-stocked and you handed money to anti-communist strongmen around the world. "That was our theory of foreign diplomacy here in the United States."

Then came Vietnam, where that theory didn't work at all.

"Vietnam. I started out supporting it," Fascell says. Today his voice drips with scorn when he talks about the conflict. More than 55,000 Americans were killed.

Presidential administrations used geopolitical simplicities to sell wars to the people, he says. "We were on the side of quote liberty, freedom, peace, and democracy, and the others were the bad guys,'" says Fascell. "They were the communists."

Fascell utters phrases that would enrage many U.S. military leaders. He believes General Giap, commanding officer of the North Vietnamese forces, was "a great military genius." He wishes he had met Ho Chi Minh.

But Fascell not only supported the war from the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, he backed it for years, he admits. He watched it destroy the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, a politician whose poverty-fighting domestic policies he supported. "He was a powerful person who knew the system better than anybody," Fascell says. But Johnson's legerdemain in winning support for the war led to his demise. "His mistake was simple: He followed the old thesis that the military was infallible," Fascell reflects bitterly.

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