Obituary: Dante Fascell

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The Independent Culture
DANTE FASCELL was a towering figure in Congress. He was an American politician of the old school, a survivor from a less partisan, more amiable political era who found no problem in placing the national good above narrow party advantage.

For two decades he was a key backstage influence in American foreign policy-making, a Democrat ready to side with Republicans if circumstances so demanded. But on social and environmental issues he was, by US standards, an irredeemable liberal. Most telling of all, both in politics and the world beyond, he scarcely had an enemy.

His powerbase was the southern Florida to which he moved with his Italian immigrant parents as a child, and whose voters he represented in Washington from 1955 for 38 years without interruption. Over the period he established himself as one of the most astute and influential politicians produced by the state this century.

Fascell was one of Capitol Hill's most skilled exponents of "porkbarrel" politics - the securing of federal funds for projects in an individual congressman's district. But he was also a tireless fighter for the environment, and a prime mover in the campaign to prevent the threatened destruction of the Everglades, the unique sub-tropical swampland that once covered most of the southern half of Florida.

His political style was old- fashioned. Not for him today's fixation with polls and focus groups: for Fascell, personal contact was all, a trait never more evident than at his legendary Labour Day picnics. For most congressmen these occasions are merely part of the annual political routine, an obligatory moment of mingling with constituents and, every other year, the kick-off of the autumn election campaign. His however were gargantuan unscripted bashes with a cast of thousands, where state dignitaries would rub shoulders with janitors, and every would-be politician from miles around would kill to be seen at.

Fittingly, Fascell's most visible legacy is in southern Florida, in Miami's Dade county, and down in the Keys. If you seek his monuments there, look around: the revitalised Port of Miami, now renamed after him, restored beaches, bridges between the Keys, and a host of university buildings, all paid for by money Fascell over the years had won from Washington. However local policy in southern Florida, where Hispanic immigrants constitute a third or more of the electorate, is also foreign policy - and hardline foreign policy at that.

Liberal Democrat he might have been on most domestic matters, but Fascell did not yield to the most right-wing Cuban refugee in his hostility to Fidel Castro, nor to Ronald Reagan in his backing for the Nicaraguan Contras. He was also a leading supporter of Israel, and of the cause of the refuseniks, the Soviet Jews seeking permission to emigrate to Israel.

Fascell's involvement with international affairs began almost as soon as he arrived in Washington. He joined the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House in 1957. Later he was a prime mover of the War Powers Act, limiting a President's right to wage war without the approval of Congress. Even so Richard Nixon, the President whose conduct largely prompted the act, remained an admirer, saying of Fascell that he had "never known anyone, Republican or Democrat, who so consistently put country above party on great issues".

Never was that attribute more visible than in 1990. Fascell by then was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, a post he held from 1985 until his retirement in 1992. He was one of the few leading Democrats who wholeheartedly backed the decision of a Republican President, George Bush, to send US troops to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, by force if neccessary.

Less than four weeks before his death, Fascell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest non-military honour. On learning of his death, President Clinton called him "a true hero . . . and an example for all Americans." A tribute with which Republicans and Democrats would alike concur.

Dante Fascell, politician: born Bridgehampton, New York 9 March 1917; married 1941 Jeanne-Marie Pelot (two daughters, and one son deceased); died Clearwater, Florida 28 November 1998.