He Made Dade

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

Fascell was not fond of Reagan. Although he won't criticize the California Republican openly, Fascell repeatedly refers to him as a man who "played the role of president perfectly." He recalls Reagan "posing" in a military officer's cap when the air force bombed Iraq.

More than his predecessors, Reagan decried, tested, and evaded the War Powers Act. Though Reagan gained congressional approval before he sent Marines to Lebanon in 1983 (269 were killed), in other cases he was not so compliant. He sent troops to Grenada in 1983, launched air attacks against Libya in 1986, and sent American war vessels into the Persian Gulf in 1987 without congressional approval.

"I remember that whenever troops were deployed, the War Powers Act would get a bad rap," says Johnson, the former aide to the Foreign Relations Committee. "The administration said it could do whatever it wanted. But in the end the law made presidents pay greater attention to Congress. You'll notice that all our military incursions since then -- Lebanon, Panama, Grenada -- have been of short duration."

FIU historian and congressional expert Dr. Nicol Rae agrees that the law has worked. He calls the issue of who has the right to declare war "the grayest of all the gray areas in the Constitution. In the modern world, presidents most often don't declare large wars," he says. "More often they need to make quick decisions about incursions that are more like guerrilla actions. But the War Powers Act certainly has acted as a source of control on presidents. They always have that 90-day clock ticking in their heads. I'm sure of that." He also points out that there have been "no more Vietnams" since the law was passed.

But in 1991 George Bush was ready to send troops into Iraq without congressional approval. "I contacted Bush I don't know how many times," Fascell recalls." I said to him, 'Mr. President, you certainly have the authority as commander in chief do whatever the hell you want with the armed forces, but you are making a tragic mistake if you go to war with this country or any country without the support of Congress. You should take your case to the American people through Congress.'" Fascell says he kept insisting for weeks. Ultimately Bush relented.

The debate that followed in both houses was long, loud, wrenching, and memorable. Most citizens had never seen or heard such an explicit and bitter discussion of whether to go to war. Members of Congress who were against the war raised the specter of body bags filled with American soldiers. The agonizing decision provoked arguments among voters across the country. In the end Congress voted for war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and most Americans supported the decision.

Today Fascell claims victory. "The War Powers Act created a debate in this country about when you go to war and when you don't," he says. "Congress had abandoned its responsibility on this issue over the years. That debate now involves not just Congress but the people. That was all it was intended to do -- involve more people in making these decisions. That's what democracy is about."

Two years after that historic debate, Fascell retired. Reapportionment had led to the drawing of new districts, and Fascell was faced with the task of running for a seat centered in Broward County. Ironically, Fascell had supported measures that created districts for black and Hispanic candidates who took over his territory.

But he would continue his career of public service. After Hurricane Andrew he joined a committee of leading South Florida citizens who directed recovery efforts. He was also appointed a University of Miami trustee and returned to work as an attorney. "He is a great man," says Maurice Ferre. "No politician from South Florida has ever been more loved or respected."

Fascell, once the young lieutenant under the jeep, kept his word to find out how things worked. He didn't win every battle. But it is undeniable that he fought the good fight.

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