On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, we motley members of the San Diego Press Club convened in the picture-perfect old Hepner Quadrangle at San Diego State to honor Lionel Van Deerlin. We weren’t there just because a bar was open. Many of us were Van’s peers for years. We felt he earned this salute from his peers for his decades as a newsman and editor, and a San Diego Congressman for 18 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 in San Diego 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. The creaky Journal newsroom was the training ground for now aging reporters in newsrooms across America.
It was significant to Van and to me that the Journal was one of a handful of newspapers launched during World War II. The circumstances remain relevant in todays frantic buying and selling of newspapers. President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, had agreed when McKinnon, the Democratic Congressman-to-be, pleaded for a rare wartime newsprint (paper) allocation.
San Diego had suddenly become to the Navy what Norfolk was on the East Coast: a strategically vital port, inhabited by families drawn by wartime employment and active duty from every part of America; and this city’s only news source was the then provincial and still right-wing Union-Tribune.
But a distinctly more cosmopolitan San Diego was born, seemingly overnight, inhabited by a cross-section of Americans that overwhelmed the little port city of pre-World War II. Old-guard San Diegans solemnly told each other that the strangers would all go away after the war and allow them to resume the city’s placid life. But we newcomers soon began to wonder if it was necessary or wise to return to our native homes, where the patterns of life were laid down by tradition. We sensed in the air and in conversation that the new land of California would offer a far wider and more accessible range of work and living styles.
Ours became a regional secession of millions of Americans, led by military service families who had seen and been stirred by California; our migration became known, in the catch phrase of the era, as the nation’s westward tilt. We had seen and been stirred by something in the California air.
In that postwar era, as now, Van Deerlin was a sharp dresser. In my photograph, he has slung his suit jacket over his shoulder and appears to be trying to escape for lunch at our favorite saloon across the street near Fifth and Ash. It was a hillside intersection, then without a stoplight, that we called Fifth and Crash because of almost daily traffic collisions outside the newsroom.
There is a glimpse of the old green-eyeshade era in the picture of Van. Two young reporters have blocked his exit and are gazing worshipfully up into his face, waving copy paper in the air and pleading that their city editor take mercy on the first drafts of their news stories.
Those Journal years ended in a merger with the Union-Tribune, and Van moved up to the Los Angeles Herald-Express. I had just discovered San Diego and refused to leave. I moved a few blocks away to the Tribune.
In the 1980s, when I became editor of a more populist Tribune, I persuaded Van, whom some still considered to be a dangerous left-winger, to write a weekly column for the Tribune. It was a newspaper full of fresh air, with a brilliant, renegade staff that brought San Diego its first Pulitzer Prizes. Van is still writing that column, his prose rich in the wry wisdom of a politician who has seen it all without believing too much of it.
He had 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 representing his San Diego district in Congress, from 1963 to 1981, helped to write a relatively golden chapter in this region’s harebrained political history. It was a time, unlike today, when Congressmen on both sides of the aisle were able to work together for the people who elected them. But now Van talks of that era of dignity and statesmanship with a faraway look in his eyes. It is not only Washington that “has changed.” It is the engrained political system that has lulled distracted voters into submission.