With the Victory for AWACS, Senate Hawk Jeremiah Denton Moves Up the Pecking Order

updated 11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1981 01:00AM

When he was elected to the United States Senate last year, retired rear admiral and former POW Jeremiah Denton declared that his goals were twofold: to convince Americans that the Vietnam war was a "legitimate" cause, and to fight for moral values he-believed the nation had abandoned. The first Republican senator from Alabama since Reconstruction, Denton was seated in what he calls the "Amen Corner" of the Senate chamber, along with other freshman practitioners of God-and-country politics. Last month, when the AWACS deal seemed doomed to collapse, Denton gained clout for his causes. He lobbied anti-AWACS colleagues intensively, and helped win the Administration its biggest convert: Roger Jepsen of Iowa, Republican co-sponsor of the resolution to kill the sale. "I have a great deal of respect for Senator Denton on military matters," says Jepsen, whose switch was critical to the Reagan victory. "His assistance was invaluable, since he has had hands-on experience with these arms systems."

That performance for AWACS underscored Denton's emergence as one of the Senate's most visible newcomers. Not everyone is pleased about that. The subcommittee on security and terrorism which he chairs has prompted fears in some quarters of a new McCarthyism, and his passionate devotion to the antiabortion cause makes him an obvious target of feminist groups. Known for his messianic zeal and a sometimes hasty candor, Denton does nothing to remove himself from the line of fire. "What the hell," he says, "women are more gentle, more compassionate, maternal. Men are the breadwinners, the animal-killers, the cavemen. This has been the case for the millennia." He was among Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O'Connor's most tenacious questioners on the subject of abortion. Still, he later voted with fellow Republicans for her confirmation and now counts her a "friend."

As one of the highest-ranking prisoners of war in Vietnam, Denton became a popular hero in Alabama. Shot down over North Vietnam in 1965, he was kept in dark coffin-sized cells, starved, held in leg stocks for months and repeatedly handcuffed and beaten. When the POWs were released on Feb. 12, 1973, he was the first man to touch American soil. In time he wrote a book describing his seven and a half years as a POW, When Hell Was in Session, which was turned into a TV movie starring Hal Holbrook.

The trauma of returning from captivity to a changed America profoundly affected Denton. He was shocked by what he saw as a new spirit of permissiveness. "I had to ask my wife what a massage parlor was," he recalls. He has been concerned ever since with uplifting American sexual mores. In 1977 he resigned as commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College to found the Coalition for Decency, a nonprofit group dedicated to education on so-called "family issues"—notably offensive TV and abortion. This year he introduced the Adolescent Family Life Act—dubbed by opponents the "teenage chastity bill"—to promote "self-discipline and responsibility" as deterrents to premarital sex. "I don't care if they tickle where it itches," the Senator once said. "I'm talking about screwing." He adds, "In my time, we wondered whether to kiss the girl on the first date, not whether to go to bed with her." (Denton, 57, and his wife of 35 years, Jane, have seven grown children.)

Denton has vociferous critics. "I frankly don't think Senator Denton knows what he's doing," says Joe L. Reed, chairman of Alabama's Black Political Caucus. "I am not concerned about whether he dislikes sex movies. I am concerned about what he will do with critical issues like unemployment, education and Social Security." In his defense, Denton insists: "They tell me I work harder than the average guy and I learn more about the issues than I need to. I can't see doing less than my best."

For the most part he gets along well with ideological opponents. He has even struck up a pragmatic relationship with arch-liberal Ted Kennedy, co-sponsor of a compromise version of the Family Life Act. "We are the funniest bunch of egotistical little satraps," he says of Senate colleagues. "On balance, however, those guys are public servants. Ted Kennedy's working like a truck driver—and he's rich. I believe he cares, and I don't mean to say he's the best one." As for his own reputation as a public servant, Denton can point to a record that reflects his ardent convictions about morality and patriotism. But, he says emphatically, "I'm no Joe McCarthy, and I'm not a prude." He adds: "Now I seem to have a little more leverage than I thought I would at this stage to do the things I think are most critical."

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