Former U.S. representative Robert Edgar dies at 69

April 23, 2013

Former U.S. representative Robert W. Edgar of Pennsylvania, an ordained United Methodist minister who was elected as one of the “Watergate baby” reformers in 1974 and during six terms was a relentless critic of patronage and corruption, died April 23 at his home in Burke. He was 69.

He apparently collapsed after running on the treadmill at his home, said his wife, Merle Edgar.

For the past five years, the former Democratic congressman was president and chief executive of Common Cause, a nonpartisan public interest organization in Washington that advocates tighter regulation of campaign money, among other reforms.

Since leaving Congress in 1987, he held leadership roles at the Claremont School of Theology in California and the National Council of Churches of Christ in New York, which often aligned itself with liberal political causes.

With the church group, Mr. Edgar became a leading advocate in 2000 for the return of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez from Florida to his father in Cuba. The child was eventually reunited with his father, over the objections of relatives in the United States and many anti-Castro activists.


Common Cause President and CEO Robert Edgar represented Pennsylvania for six terms in the House of Representatives. (Common Cause/Associated Press)

Before holding elective office, Mr. Edgar was the Protestant chaplain of Drexel University in his native Philadelphia and co-founded one of the city’s first emergency shelters for homeless women.

His political ambitions were fueled primarily by the Watergate bugging scandal and cover-up, which led President Richard M. Nixon to resign in August 1974. Mr. Edgar was undaunted by his dearth of campaign experience and the fact that the open seat he sought, in a suburban district southwest of Philadelphia, had voted Republican since 1858.

Watergate fervor and Mr. Edgar’s promise of clean government propelled him to Washington, where he presented himself as a reformer in the tradition of Frank Capra’s cinematic ode to triumphant idealism, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

“He always had this moralistic sense about him, a strong moral compass and moral focus,” G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said of Mr. Edgar in an interview.

Mr. Edgar amassed one of the most liberal voting records in Congress and was sometimes perceived as excessively uncompromising.

The Almanac of American Politicsdescribed Mr. Edgar as having “ruffled his elders in almost every conceivable way” and noted his “marvelous touch of naivete” in the rough and tumble of Washington.

On the Public Works and Transportation Committee, he tried to differentiate needed infrastructure repairs from pork-barrel boondoggles that he belittled as Congress’s “manhood ritual.”

Mr. Edgar was credited with helping to scuttle $1.4 billion in dam and water projects in 46 states. He nearly sank the multibillion-dollar Tennessee-
Tombigbee Waterway, a 234-mile, man-made shortcut that smooths the way for commercial navigation from the Tennessee River toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Rep. Gene Snyder (R-Ky.), known for his pugnacious manner, once lambasted Mr. Edgar’s efforts to excise projects from a massive public works bill and accused him of having not “an ounce of milk of human kindness in his soul.”

To that and other criticism, Mr. Edgar told The Washington Post, “I believe many members with projects in the bill are saying, and they have told me privately, ‘right on, Bob.’ But they can’t come out and oppose their own projects. It’s just unfortunate that one can’t raise policy issues apart from individual projects. The criteria for all of these ought to be on their merit.”

Robert William Edgar was born May 29, 1943, in Philadelphia. He decided on a career in the ministry, he once said, after attending a church camp with forceful leaders who showed that “faith could be exciting.”

He said he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. weeks before the civil rights leader’s assassination in 1968 and that he was deeply influenced by King’s teachings and those of the liberal Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler.

Mr. Edgar graduated in 1965 from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., and three years later received a master of divinity degree from Drew University in Madison, N.J.

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Merle Deaver Edgar of Burke; three sons, Robert Edgar Jr. of Fort Payne, Ala., T. David Edgar of Moon Township, Pa., and Andrew Edgar of Herndon; his mother, Marion Edgar of Villas, N.J.; two brothers, Ralph Edgar of Grand Detour, Ill., and Richard Edgar of Mechanicsville; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Edgar vacated his House seat to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican, in the 1986 election. Mr. Edgar lost and, four years later, became president of the Claremont School of Theology. During his 10 years leading the institution, he helped grow the endowment to $21 million from $3.8 million.

Mr. Edgar’s fundraising prowess led to his appointment in 2000 as general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ.

Before the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Mr. Edgar helped start a campaign called Religious Leaders for Sensible Priorities that criticized President George W. Bush for the proposed invasion, which occurred in 2003.

Mr. Edgar told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he wanted to draw attention to the likely high casualty rate among women and children.

He also cited as his motivation the timid reaction of the faith community to the Vietnam War. The consequences of combat operations in the Middle East could be even more excruciating, he warned, having the potential to “ignite a religious war.”

Mr. Edgar also denounced “blind patriotism” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We’ve been working since Sept. 11 to get Christians, Muslims and Jews to get to know each other — to stop ‘racial profiling,’ ” he told an interviewer in 2002. “God is calling us to love rather than to label.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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