Progressive and peace minded advocates lost an inspiring leader with the sudden death of Bob Edgar. Bob combined religion, politics, organizing and advancing the public good with uncommon inspiration, energy and good judgment.
The first obituaries focused on his Congressional career–quite lively and effective– but they missed the fulness of Bob. I first knew the public Bob Edgar when he was part of the 1974 Watergate class elected form Delaware County outside of Philadelphia. As a Philadelphia native I knew the rock ribbed century old Republican triumphalism in that county. Republicans elected reactionaries, very reactionary officials or extreme ones. Bob’s election was a miracle.
Bob was Bob as a House member– forthright, candid and principled. That’s why he was re-elected five times when everybody thought he was a safe bet as a one term only legislator. He stirred the House by challenging the powerful. At the end of a Congress the special interests try to raid the Federal treasury or gain money for projects that have no public value. Bob learned procedure and killed off these attacks on the public good. Some of that is captured by the late Ward Sinclair, a prize winning Washington Post reporter of the 70s and 8os.
Bob cared about peace and fighting the insanity of weapons building madness. But unlike others in the anti-war movement he understood that veterans, who served, needed help and were not to blame for the follies of our policies.
Bob challenged Arlen Specter for the Senate in 1986. Bob lost and we lost a strong liberal and peace voice in the Senate. But Bob didn’t go off to sulk. He found his voice as President of the Claremont School of Theology and later the National Council of Churches,
the social justice bastion of mainline American Protestantism. Our paths crossed occasionally in his work for the Council– protests, rallies, human rights issues.
Bob played an active role on the National Coalition on Health Care. Bob was a valued adviser to Ralph Neas its head. Our paths crossed there as I was called on regularly to give counsel on legislative efforts to advance the Affordable Care Act.
When Bob headed Common Cause I began to know Bob beyond the public life. He valued history and sought out the early history of Common Cause—-what went well and what we learned from our mistakes. We had a frank relationship which means our disagreements were discussed. He listened well–sometimes we went our separate ways but other times he had the staff look into my suggestions. Bob made you feel valued.
At John Gardner’s 100th anniversary Bob gave a wonderful reflective talk on Gardner’s many contributions and lasting influence. He was always generous. He took a tribute that I wrote on Gardner and had it distributed at Stanford. It became part of the anniversary record.
With other veterans of the Watergate fight I participated in Common Cause’s 40th anniversary retrospective. My panel did not only look backward with warriors telling their stories but we looked forward as well, detailing what had to be done to eliminate the abuses of power and secrecy, deal with the ongoing tensions between the Executive and Legislative branches and end the corrupting influence of money in American politics. That is basic Bob Edgar and John Gardner too. Bob was always gracious. At the awards ceremony he escorted the principal speaker, Elizabeth Drew, who had chronicled the impeachment story and wrote important books on that period and Richard Nixon.
Our last conversation occurred a few weeks after that event. We discussed the abuses of conflict of interest in House and Senate Committees and the members ties to campaign money. It is a topic that Common Cause is finding ways to address. It will affect the extractive industries, the pharmaceuticals, the chemical companies, the arms industry and liberal interests such as labor and education. The work continues!
Bob stands as an inspiring leader to the Common Cause staff. He enjoyed sharing pictures of his grandchildren and the staff loved that accessibility. In the secular world of politics Bob never lost sight of the importance of the social gospel, an essential part of the American story. That social gospel is part of what creates added inclusion to the American polity. It is based on equity and fairness. It is the way to build our “more perfect Union.”
That social gospel now brings an important segment of evangelical community to the fight on climate change and enacting immigration reform. Bob understood that faith based means action and activism, not passivity and being supine. It means being persistent and to keep finding new ways to address old problems.
Bob lived the influence of Gandhi and King. Confront injustice, address power imbalances, draw on moral and ethical teachings. That is a living legacy for those of us who fight for equality and peace, who want a fair and just society and one without nuclear arms or war.
April 25, 2013