Lionel Van Deerlin
Saturday, June 24, 2006
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we motley members of the San Diego Press Club convened in the picture perfect quad at San Diego State to honor Lionel Van Deerlin. We weren't there just because the bar was open. Van earned this salute for his in depth reporting of San Diego news for nearly fifty years.
A faded newsroom photograph of Van Deerlin hangs on the wall of my study it is 1946 he and I are just sprung from the military and struggling to get a toehold as adult Californians and as journalists.
He became my city editor at the San Diego Daily Journal an afternoon newspaper that is little remembered one that was both bold and doomed because it joyfully reminded its readers in Conservative San Diego that its owner, Clinton McKinnon, was a Liberal Democrat.
It was important to Van and me that the Journal was one of only a very few newspapers launched during World War II. The reason remains relevant to today's newspaper ownerships.
President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, had agreed when McKinnon, the Democratic Congressman-to-be pleaded for a rare emergency newsprint allocation San Diego had suddenly become to the Navy what Norfolk was on the East Coast a strategically vital port and this city's only news source was the right-wing Union-Tribune.
In 1946, as now, Van Deerlin was a sharp dresser. In my newsroom picture, he has slung his suit jacket over his shoulder and appears to be trying to escape for lunch at our favorite bar across the street near Fifth and Ash a hillside intersection, then without a stoplight, that we called "Fifth and Crash? because of almost daily traffic collisions outside the newsroom.
But, in the picture, two young reporters have blocked Van's exit and are gazing worshipfully up into his face, waving copy paper in the air and pleading that he take mercy on the first drafts of their news stories.
When those Journal years ended in a merger with the Union-Tribune, Van moved up to the Los Angeles Herald-Express. But I had just discovered San Diego and refused to leave. I moved across downtown to the Union-Tribune.
Years later, when I was editor of a somewhat liberalized Tribune I persuaded Van, who was still considered a dangerous left winger, to write a weekly column for the Tribune he is still writing it, his prose rich in the wry wisdom of a politician who has seen it all without believing it all.
He served in Congress with humanitarian grace. After 18 years, he was voted out by a newcomer named Duncan Hunter. I phoned Van that day and told him what I still believe.
His service in Congress, from 1963 to 1981, provided a relatively golden chapter in this region's harebrained political history, a time when Congressmen on both sides of the aisle were able to work together for the people who elected them.