January 13, 2003
Rohrabacher leads his own way
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON -- When Dana Rohrabacher made his first run for a House seat
in 1988, in a district that included a swath of the South Bay, his
campaign aides wanted him to shave off his beard.
""Well, he didn't, which proved to me he was a man of his own mind,
campaign consultant Allan Hoffenblum recalled. ""He turned out to be
The beard helped voters distinguish Rohrabacher, who was relatively
unknown in the district, from the other Republicans vying for the
nomination, Hoffenblum said.
Fifteen years and seven terms later, Rep. Rohrabacher still stands out,
though he's clean shaven now. And redistricting has once again made the
globe-trotting, surf-riding lawmaker from Orange County a presence in
the South Bay, with a sliver of territory from Long Beach to the Palos
Verdes Peninsula now part of his district.
""If there was ever a district that had my name on it, it's this
district,'' said Rohrabacher, 55, who is a 1965 graduate of Palos Verdes
High and now lives in Huntington Beach.
Rohrabacher's political odyssey has been a long, sometimes strange,
trip, including stints as a conservative folk musician, White House
speech writer, inveterate Cold Warrior and promoter of space-based
""He's not your father's Oldsmobile,'' said Jack Pitney, a former
Republican strategist who now teaches government at Claremont McKenna
College. ""He's very much an individualist who doesn't fit the
traditional image of a Congress member.''
Supporters admire his willingness to speak his mind, his fiery
conservatism and his tendency to throw ideological curve balls, like his
backing of medical use of marijuana and opposition to government
subsidies for big business.
Detractors call him a show horse who is more interested in faraway
places like Afghanistan than his coastal district.
""My take on Dana Rohrabacher is he's just not a serious person, he's
not a serious legislator. He's a political gadfly,'' said Wylie Aitken,
chairman of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County.
Rohrabacher says he is attentive to his district's interests, including
its large aerospace industry.
He was a long-time supporter of developing a commercial airport at the
closed El Toro Marine base to meet the region's aviation needs. And he
vows to be a strong advocate for the ports of Los Angeles and Long
Beach, including their quest for money for security upgrades.
Rohrabacher is unapologetic about his interest in foreign affairs,
particularly his involvement in Afghanistan, which dates from his years
in the Reagan administration.
""A stable Afghanistan is a pre-requisite for a stable central Asia.
You have a huge chunk of the world that pivots around Afghanistan,'' he
Rohrabacher may have a high school football injury to thank for his
political career. It sidelined him from the team at Palos Verdes High
and turned his extracurricular interests elsewhere.
""That was the fall of '64. That's when I took over Youth for Goldwater
and got really involved in politics,'' he said. ""I had high schools
organized all over the area for (Republican presidential candidate
Rohrabacher, who was born in Coronado, grew up around the conservative
milieu of the military. His father was a Marine Corps colonel who kept
the family moving until he retired to the Rancho Palos Verdes area in
While many young people in the '60s were gravitating toward leftist,
anti-war politics, Rohrabacher enlisted in Young Americans for Freedom,
a group formed by conservative guru William F. Buckley.
He also became enamored with another budding politician: Ronald Reagan.
""Ronald Reagan was the most important mentor I had,'' Rohrabacher
said. ""He had the same sort of positive patriotism that I identified
But Rohrabacher was not totally immune to the counter-cultural ferment
""I was a very radical libertarian at one point. Right after college,
I was sort of a wandering troubadour for a year or two,'' he said.
He picked a banjo in a folk band called the Patriots Four. Asked once
whether he ever smoked marijuana, he told an interviewer, ""When I was
young, I did everything but drink the bong water.''
The hip injury he sustained in football also kept him out of the war in
Vietnam. Despite his hawkish views, Rohrabacher said he was
""disillusioned'' by the war and took an X-ray of his injury to his
""They looked at it and they said my hip wasn't good enough,'' he said.
""When I look back on that, sometimes I wonder if I should have taken
that X-ray with me or not. But it was a legitimate health issue and I
submitted myself to their decision.''
Rohrabacher became more settled in the '70s. He got married and started
a career in journalism, ultimately becoming an editorial writer for the
staunchly conservative/libertarian Orange County Register.
Reagan's presidential ambitions lured Rohrabacher back into politics.
He was an assistant press secretary in Reagan's first two campaigns, and
he joined the administration as a speech writer when Reagan was elected
Rohrabacher's White House years kindled his interest in Afghanistan.
Reagan strongly supported the opposition to the Soviet troops who had
invaded Afghanistan in 1979. When Afghan guerrilla leaders came to the
White House, ""I was the guy who volunteered to take them to lunch,''
Rohrabacher returned to southern California in 1988 to claim a
congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Daniel E. Lungren.
Rohrabacher's ties to the Reagan administration, including a
fund-raising visit by Iran-contra figure Ollie North, helped him
overcome two better-known rivals -- Harriett Wieder and Steve Horn -- in
the crucial Republican primary.
After his November election victory, he slipped away to Afghanistan and
""I got to know all of the (anti-Soviet) leaders and have been very,
very deeply involved ever since,'' said Rohrabacher, whose office walls
are adorned with photos of him in Afghan garb and playing chess with the
Rohrabacher's interest in foreign affairs has often provided fodder for
opponents. His 2002 Democratic challenger, Gerrie Schipske, accused him
of ""secret and illegal negotiations'' in April 2001 with the Taliban,
the radical Islamic group that then ruled the nation and gave shelter to
terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.
But such charges haven't hurt Rohrabacher much. He was re-elected last
year with 62 percent of the vote.
""It's a heavily Republican district that allows him the freedom to
pursue interests such as foreign affairs,'' said Pitney, the Claremont
A framed poster in Rohrabacher's office lobby features astronauts
walking in front of a futuristic space city. ""Return to the Moon --
This Time We Stay,'' it says.
The poster illustrates another of Rohrabacher's abiding interests: the
commercial potential of space.
As chairman of the House Science Committee's space and aeronautics
subcommittee, Rohrabacher was an advocate for tax breaks for commercial
ventures in space and NASA's international space station. Boeing, a
major employer in his district, is the station's prime contractor.
""It's a bit old fashioned, but an interesting entrepreneurial view of
"Let's go out and shake that final frontier for all it's worth,''' said
Keith Cowing, who tracks space issues as editor of the online journal
Rohrabacher has also been active on the thorny subject of satellite
technology exports, which is important to South Bay aerospace companies.
A fierce opponent of China, Rohrabacher supported the transfer of export
licensing to the State Department after allegations surfaced that some
U.S. companies shared technology that helped China improve its ballistic
""Some of the executives in our aerospace industry betrayed their
country,'' he said.
But last year, Rohrabacher co-sponsored legislation to return the
authority to the Commerce Department, with additional safeguards, saying
the State Department was being too restrictive.
""He's a mercurial personality, but he has been helpful to us at
times,'' said one satellite industry source.
The biography on Rohrabacher's official House Web site describes him as
""a strong proponent of term limits.'' But he says he has no intention
of voluntarily stepping down before he's ready to retire.
""For a member of Congress to impose that upon himself or herself is a
great disservice to the constituents. I mean the constituents have
elected me for 14 years. To just unilaterally and gratuitously throw
that away would be ridiculous,'' he said.
Nor, he claims, does he harbor ambitions for higher office.
Pitney said that is a wise view given how tough it would be for a
conservative Republican like Rohrabacher to win a Senate seat or another
statewide office in heavily Democratic California.
""The most realistic path for him is to increase power in the House
through the committee system,'' Pitney said.
Schipske, Rohrabacher's 2002 election foe, believes Rohrabacher's
district will become more moderate and that he will become more
vulnerable to a Democratic challenger.
But other observers say the only worry Rohrabacher has is a Republican
primary challenge. Moderate Republican Steve Kuykendall, who lost his
South Bay House seat to Democrat Jane Harman in 2000, considered it last
Aitken, the Democratic foundation chairman, said fatalistically, ""In
parts of Orange County, it's quite obvious my dog, my cat, anyone is
going to get elected if they are affiliated with the Republican Party.''