• U.S.

An Admiral from Alabama

5 minute read
William A. Henry III

Old-fashioned convictions drive the P.O.W. Senator

Most men come to the Senate to build a career. In the manner of his biblical namesake, Jeremiah Denton came to sound an alarm. A retired admiral who spent more than seven years as a prisoner of war in North Viet Nam, Denton believes that America is being destroyed by sexual immorality and Soviet-sponsored political “disinformation”—and that both are being promoted by dupes, or worse, in the media. By the mid-1980s, he warns, “we will have less national security than we had proportionately when George Washington’s troops were walking around barefoot at Valley Forge.”

Such apocalyptic talk sometimes puzzles when it does not alarm his colleagues on the Hill. But it goes down just fine with the people of Alabama, who last fall chose Denton, 56, as the first Republican to represent them in the Senate since Reconstruction days. “He’s the most popular man in the state right now,” says Bobby Davis, a top aide to Democratic Governor Fob James Jr.

Denton has an ideal plinth from which to proclaim his strident anti-Soviet views. He is chairman of a new Judiciary Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism. At recent hearings, Denton depicted a pervasive, secret Soviet influence within the U.S. and suggested that Moscow had stopped short of using terrorism in this country only to leave America “a sleeping giant” until too late. Liberals and civil libertarians are worried about groups that Denton may try to investigate as part of the “disinformation” conspiracy, such as antinuclear organizations and a Washington-based liberal think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. Some critics have begun to compare Denton to that ultimate American witch-hunter, the late Joe McCarthy.

That is unfair. Denton does not use McCarthy’s ambush tactics, and unlike McCarthy, he is plainly sincere. He spent more than four of his years as a Vietnamese prisoner in solitary, his feet manacled to the floor for months at a time. Nonetheless, he maintained a chain of command in the P.O.W. camps and endured savage beatings for it. When forced to video-tape a confession, he blinked his eyes in Morse code to send the world a message, “Torture.”

In some ways Denton represents the highest ideals of the New Righteousness. After leaving the Navy in 1977, he helped found the Coalition for Decency, which tried to clean up television by urging boycotts of sponsors. When elected to the Senate last fall, he was relatively unschooled in politics. Denton ran in order to speak his deepest beliefs as a patriot, a Roman Catholic and a father of seven, and he refuses to compromise them now.

He insists, for example, that “sexual jealousy” causes most teen-age suicides and much violent crime, including “90%” of murders and attempted killings. He has deviated from a Reaganesque budget-cutting fervor on just one social issue: a proposed $30 million program for the Government to advocate teen-age chastity. Like Ronald Reagan, Denton strongly defends the validity of the U.S. effort in Viet Nam. He contends that the war could have been won but the U.S. failed to see and press its advantage. He adds that America must recognize the Viet Nam fighting as “morally just” if it is to regain national spirit. Denton also admires Richard Nixon for understanding “the use of force” and the depth of Communist hostility. Nixon reciprocated with a $1,000 contribution to Denton’s campaign.

Yet Denton is not a predictable, doctrinaire conservative or a prude. He gambles, takes a social drink now and then, and can swear like the sailor he was. He is an intimate of Baptist Preacher Jerry Falwell, and his campaign was backed by Falwell’s Moral Majority. A month after the election he complained to Falwell that the group had no blacks or Jews on its board. Said Denton: “I don’t see the Moral Majority supporting the commandment ‘Love thy neighbor.’ ” He challenges fellow Southerners who support a vast network of all-white “Christian academies” that rival public school systems to “prove these schools aren’t shelters for segregation. Prove it!”

Denton sometimes seems like a man from an earlier era, when people commonly lived by principles. One of his own, since youth: “To believe in the heroic makes heroes.” He thought of becoming a journalist, he once said, because they seemed to be “messianic people.” Then he was moved to join the Navy—he entered in Jimmy Carter’s class at Annapolis, graduating in 1946—by seeing a Lionel Barrymore movie, Navy Blue and Gold.

Denton’s youth was rootless. He attended at least 13 grammar schools and lived in hotels where his father was a desk clerk. He came to know a settled family life only when his parents separated. His mother, a devout Roman Catholic, kept the children with her. Denton’s father was a womanizer, a real estate speculator, a onetime bookie. Four decades later, Denton acknowledges that he is still preoccupied enough by his father to campaign for family life.

Before he went to war in 1965, he is fond of telling visitors, the raciest thing in the media was Clark Gable telling Vivien Leigh: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Returning to America from the P.O.W. camps, he had to ask his wife what a massage parlor was. He still sees explicit sex as an “alien element” in our heritage. He passionately wants “to restore patriotism, especially among opinion formers, the people in the media and education.” And he is unfazed by opposition, even mockery of his convictions for being naively overwrought. “I’m going to stand up and take it,” he says. “By the time I’m finished, the press will take the lead rather than question my McCarthyite characteristics.”

—By William A. Henry III.

Reported by Evan Thomas/Washington

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