He Made Dade

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

One way that Fascell assured himself of Cuban-American support was by backing the U.S. embargo of the island. (Fascell calls Castro "a big man who talks too much," although he also believes "the people in Cuba love him.") But he admits today that he never thought the embargo could successfully drive Castro from power. "It's one thing to state a policy," he says, "and it's another to believe it will work. A unilateral embargo isn't worth the paper it's written on. It never achieved what some Cubans here wanted: Fidel Castro's head on a flaming stick marching down Calle Ocho. It's never going to achieve that. And I told the Cuban community that no responsible U.S. military man will ever advocate the invasion of Cuba."

Fascell's congressional seat was never seriously threatened during his first 28 years in Washington. His accomplishments scared off opponents. He led the effort to create the Department of Housing and Urban Development and later the Department of Energy. He also pushed through a moratorium on oil drilling off the Florida Keys and a bill requiring members of Congress to disclose their finances.

Until 1982, Fascell won every election comfortably, never spending more than $75,000 on a campaign. Then the Dade GOP nominated well-known former WPLG-TV (Channel 10) anchor Glenn Rinker. Republicans insisted that Fascell was "extremely vulnerable" because of his liberal voting record in an increasingly conservative district. For the first time Fascell needed money for extensive television ads. By the November election he had raised $470,000, more than six times any of his previous totals. He beat Rinker in a walk.

The list of Fascell's campaign contributors for that election and subsequent contests reads like a who's who of Miami-Dade and Washington: Dolphins owner Joe Robbie; financier Louis Wolfson; bankers Raul Masvidal, Charles Zwick, and Carlos Arboleya; developers Tibor Hollo and Armando Codina; liquor tycoon Jay Weiss; former ambassador Averill Harriman; and former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford. Cuban-American political organizations also supported him in a big way. The National Coalition for a Free Cuba donated $41,436 to his campaigns over the years; CANF leaders, including Mas Canosa, coughed up another $33,387, according to figures computed by the foundation. Pro-Israel PACs and many labor unions also contributed. When Fascell retired he still had more than $400,000 on hand, which he donated to favorite causes such as the University of Miami and Miami Children's Hospital.

After 1982 Fascell was considered unbeatable. He had a reputation as a consensus builder and a master at formulating bipartisan foreign policy. Even Robert Dornan, then an ultraconservative California congressman, couldn't contain his admiration. "Personal warmth goes a long way," he said in praise of Fascell. "Fairness goes even farther."

In 1984 Fascell was elected chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and thus gained control over a staff of more than 80 people. But that year was marred by the death of his 27-year-old son, Dante Jon, who was killed in an automobile accident on the Seven-Mile Bridge in the Keys -- which was built with federal funds solicited by Fascell.

As Fascell reached the pinnacle of his success, two other Dade congressmen rose to power in Washington. Pepper was named chairman of the House Rules Committee and won unprecedented amounts of aid for the nation's elderly. And Lehman controlled a key subcommittee on transportation, bringing home big money for highway construction and Metrorail. House Speaker Tip O'Neill called Dade the most powerful county in the nation.

Through the years Fascell watched eight presidents come and go. It wasn't until Jimmy Carter's election in 1976 that he had a soul mate in the White House. "Carter was a brilliant president," Fascell says flatly. "He gets a lot less credit than he deserves. He made monumental decisions that affected the foreign policy of this country." Foremost among Carter's causes, according to Fascell, were insistence on the importance of human rights and on the United States's leading role in a global economy. Fascell had become a believer in the need to replace military menace with the development of new markets for American goods. He helped win funding for institutions such as the Interamerican Foundation, which pledged aid to poor communities in the hemisphere to develop consumer economies. He believed peddling blue jeans would increase U.S. influence more than nuclear weapons or arming abusive anti-communist strongmen.

Fascell, who had always been wary of the CIA, later became a principal supporter of the National Endowment for Democracy. That federally funded institution sends U.S. business people, labor activists, and political organizers abroad to promote participatory government and the market economy. "Why should we have the CIA doing undercover work to sell our way of life when we could do it aboveboard?" he reasons.

Fascell still speaks angrily about the beating Carter took in the media during the 1979 Iran crisis. Like Fascell, Carter had served honorably in the military. But when Iranian militants took 52 Americans hostage in the American embassy in Tehran, Carter decided against an invasion. Fascell supported that decision (A small-scale commando raid April 24, 1980, failed.)

One of the hostages was Ann Swift, then a Fascell aide. Along with the others she was finally released just days after Carter lost a re-election bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980. All through the crisis, the media pressured Carter to attack. Fascell believes Carter showed more courage in defying the public criticism than it would have taken to send young men to die in Iran. "President Carter handled the crisis in exemplary fashion," he says. "It wasn't the hostage crisis that brought down his presidency, as some people say. It was the media."

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