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.