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.
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."
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.
Vietnam dragged on. More young Americans came home in body bags. Though Fascell continued to vote funding for the war, privately he was confirming suspicions about the military and its bureaucratic allies. (He refers to Kennedy- and Johnson-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sarcastically as "the whiz kid.") After Richard Nixon appointed Henry Kissinger national security adviser and then secretary of state, things got worse, Fascell says. He has kind words for almost everyone he knew in government, but none for Kissinger. "Henry Kissinger believes in the power and influence of the economy and military, period," hisses Fascell. "He thinks that's the only way that ever works. His theory is carry a big stick and use it and make a lot of loud noise."
Fascell finally became a vocal critic of the Vietnam conflict in 1971; American troops had invaded Laos in pursue of Viet Cong guerrillas who had fled there. "What the hell kind of deal is that?" he asks incredulously. "What about the Constitution of the United States, Congress, the American people? Congress was lying low and pretty much letting the president do what he wanted. That was crazy. We had to do something about this, to get control of it. Nixon was talking about dropping the atom bomb on Hanoi. He should have dropped Checkers," he says scornfully, referring to Nixon's famous cocker spaniel.
Fascell began to work the halls of Congress and by 1973 had cosponsored -- with New York Sen. Jacob Javits and others -- one of the crown jewels of his foreign affairs career: the War Powers Act. (He would also write a law prohibiting U.S. forces from using chemical and biological weapons, which he considers a major foreign policy achievement.) The new law was intended to limit a president's ability to dispatch troops into battle without congressional approval, which had happened 200 times since 1789.
The Fascell-sponsored bill, which was approved by Congress and survived a veto attempt by Nixon, states that a president must get congressional approval for military incursions that last longer than 90 days. Fascell prayed it would prohibit more protracted, undeclared wars like Vietnam.
But by that time an issue closer to home worried him: Cuba. A half-million people had abandoned the island for South Florida. Many were becoming citizens, registering as Republicans, and voting in his district. In general they were more conservative than Fascell on foreign policy; many hated the Democrats because they thought President Kennedy had betrayed their cause during the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion. They reasoned that the president had refused to send air support for the landing force.
But Fascell made many friends in the Cuban-American community during the 1960s by winning federal aid for resettlement of exiles. The money went for housing, job training, clothing, and food. "Even though Cubans later began to vote Republican for president, they supported Dante," says friend Bernardo Benes, a former banker and moderate Cuban community leader. "People felt a lot of gratitude. He really is a wonderful man."
Fascell, with help from the State Department, assisted Benes in bringing part of his family from Cuba in the early 1960s. In 1978 he helped Benes negotiate with Havana for the release of hundreds of Cuban political prisoners and their families. "I went to see Fascell in his Washington office one day at noon," recalls Benes. "He picks up the phone and Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state, picks it up on the other end. No secretary, no nothing. I met with Vance at 5:00 p.m. that day. That's how powerful Dante was."
Jorge Mas Canosa, late chairman of the conservative Cuban American National Foundation, also used Fascell as an adviser. Mas Canosa visited Fascell in the late 1970s. With his small stature and aggressive demeanor, he was a mirror image of Fascell. Benes claims Fascell encouraged Mas Canosa to model his organization on the American Israel Political Action Committee, the extremely successful pro-Israel lobby.
"Jorge Mas Canosa came to talk to me and I said to him, 'Fine, but I'm only one vote. You won't be effective unless you talk to a lot of people,'" Fascell recalls. The foundation became a tremendously successful lobby against Fidel Castro's Cuba. "Mas Canosa realized that organization, money, and votes would open the door in Congress for people to listen to your views," Fascell recalls. "He became Americanized."
Fascell became a staunch defender of CANF, which surprised some of his more moderate supporters. The congressman helped secure tens of millions of dollars for Radio Marti in 1983 and TV Marti in 1987, both foundation-backed projects. In the 1980s he supported the Nicaraguan contras, allies of the Cuban exiles. "When I first met Dante, I was more conservative and he was more liberal on Cuba," says attorney Alfredo Duran, a Fascell admirer. "Over the years our positions changed. Dante changed because his constituency changed. He was a politician and he needed their votes."
Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University, contends Fascell's position on Cuba was a model for many other South Florida politicians, including Pepper, former Congressmen William Lehman and Larry Smith, and current U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch. "These men are or were all liberal on social policy, but they took the hard line against Castro," says Moreno. "In Dante's case I don't think it was just a matter of convenience. He really is an anti-communist. And since he is Italian American, he has a good understanding of ethnic politics."
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."
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.
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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.