John F. Seiberling, 89; Liberal Eight-Term Ohio Congressman

Rep. John F. Seiberling, who fought for the environment, represented the Akron, Ohio, area from 1971 to 1986. He participated in the Watergate probe and helped write the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon.
Rep. John F. Seiberling, who fought for the environment, represented the Akron, Ohio, area from 1971 to 1986. He participated in the Watergate probe and helped write the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. (By James K.w. Atherton -- The Washington Post)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

John F. Seiberling, 89, an eight-term congressman who represented Ohio's 14th District from 1971 to 1987 and a liberal Democrat who championed environmental concerns, died of respiratory failure Aug. 2 at his home in Akron.

An environmentalist before becoming a member of Congress, he joined the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee in his second term and chaired several committees with jurisdiction over public land, national parks, wilderness areas and the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

He sponsored legislation to preserve 129 million acres of public land in Alaska and in national parks and wilderness areas throughout the United States. The bill included the 30,000-acre Cuyahoga National Recreation Area -- now Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio's only national park.

During the Reagan administration, he battled Interior Secretary James G. Watt, who proposed opening millions of acres in wilderness areas to private development. The proposal would "gut the nation's wilderness system," Mr. Seiberling maintained.

On a March day in 1985, Mr. Seiberling took to the House floor to urge his colleagues to support the Olmsted Heritage Landscapes Act, a bill funding a study of the legacy of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City's Central Park and the U.S. Capitol grounds, among many other projects nationwide. The bill also required the Interior Department to begin a long-overdue effort to restore many of the nation's "historically designed landscapes."

"The performance was inspired," wrote Benjamin Forgey of The Washington Post. "From time to time other subcommittee members would drop in but the show, like the bill, clearly belonged to Chairman Seiberling."

In 1970, Mr. Seiberling was working as an antitrust attorney for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron when his concern for the nation's involvement in the Vietnam War prompted him to run for the House. He defeated the Republican incumbent, William H. Ayres, who had held the seat for 20 years.

Mr. Seiberling served on the House Judiciary Committee, where he participated in the Watergate scandal investigation and helped write the articles of impeachment that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation.

He supported measures to promote competition in the nation's industries and in 1976 successfully floor-managed House passage of the Scott-Hart-Rodino Antitrust Act. In 1973, he was elected chairman of the Members of Congress for Peace Through Law, later known as the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus.

An unwavering liberal who consistently voted to rein in Pentagon spending, he was not reluctant to attack President Ronald Reagan even as the nation trended conservative.

"He's got it made and he doesn't know about the people who don't," he told a town hall meeting at a VFW Hall in Barberton, Ohio, in 1982. "There's no use talking to Reagan. His mind is made up, and he doesn't want to be bothered with the facts."

More than 600,000 Ohioans were unemployed at the time, and unemployment in the Akron area was at 11.9 percent.

Mr. Seiberling was born in Akron and received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1941. During World War II he served in the Army Transportation Corps and was assigned to work out the logistics of supplying the forces that invaded Normandy. A major when he was discharged in 1946, he was awarded a Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star. He received his law degree from Columbia University in 1949.

He worked as a lawyer in New York before returning to Akron in 1954 and running for Congress 17 years later.

Mr. Seiberling was popular among voters in his Ohio district but decided not to seek reelection after a bout with prostate cancer. He retired from Congress in 1986 and taught at the University of Akron's School of Law, where for several years headed the university's Center for Peace Studies. He served on the boards of several national organizations, including the Wilderness Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2001, President Bill Clinton presented him with a Presidential Citizens Medal.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Elizabeth Behr Seiberling of Akron; three sons, John Seiberling of the District, David Seiberling of Akron and Stephen Seiberling of Chapel Hill, N.C.; two sisters; and one grandson.

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