A Tribute to Don Edwards

by John Lawrence

One of the unfortunate realities about the reputations of great men and women who serve in Congress is that, among the vast majority of Americans outside their districts (and unfortunately, many within their districts), their good works – even their great works – rarely are recognized beyond their own lifetimes, if then. Former congressman George Miller’s father, the state senator of the 1960s, used to advise officeholders with exaggerated senses of self-importance, “Anytime you think you’re a big deal, drive 10 miles down the road and see who ever heard of you.”

Partly that anonymity is a factor of the public’s disinterest and disengagement in real political activity, as opposed to the pontificating that passes for “politics” by many these days. Partly it is because there are so many legislators that it would be challenge for the press to educate people about their contributions, if the press were even remotely interested in doing so. So the task falls to historians and political scientists, most of whom prefer to focus on the more manageable presidential level of political studies.

Don Edwards reminds us of the extraordinary contributions one member of the House can make to the Nation, as well as of the effective role the Congress itself can play in the life of the Nation. For twenty years, Don passed up opportunities to move to positions that might have accorded him great power or profile, choosing instead to remain as the chairman of the Subcommittee on the Civil and Constitutional Rights, a conscientious gatekeeper who ensured that no topical obsession of the Right or Left maneuvered its way into Nation’s governing code. It is source of constant amazement that this low-key but resolute legislator could engage in some of the most controversial and discordant debates of the 20th century without raising his voice or losing his equanimity. Perhaps it was his evenhandedness that so exasperated his opponents as much as his intelligence and resoluteness.

Don wasn’t a doctrinaire left-winger, as some might have thought from his record in the House; he actually began life as a Republican and served as chairman of California’s Young Republican organization during the rise of Richard Nixon. Of course, he also had that singular, if brief, career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation which he unfailingly cited as evidence that he was no do-gooder pushover, although if J. Edgar Hoover could have excised his tenure from the FBI’s records, Don would have been hard-pressed to prove he had served there.

I first became aware of Don Edwards in college when he had become recognized as one of the earliest opponents of America’s growing involvement in Vietnam and, as National Chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action, helped sponsor the early anti-war march in 1965. (In 1965, Edwards declined a plea by anti-war activist (and future congressman) Allard Lowenstein to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, a role eventually assumed by Gene McCarthy.) I didn’t know anything about him or his district, I wasn’t aware if this was a particularly courageous stance for him to take politically or a response to constituent pressure; all I knew was that at a time when virtually everyone in the House of Representatives seemed utterly tone-deaf to the protests from the campuses and the warnings of the doubters, Don Edwards’ name kept popping up on key votes to end funding for the war that provided rare evidence that all hope was not lost in finding courage in Congress. Being introduced to him when I came to work in the House in 1975 was like meeting a prophet of peace.

No tribute to Don would be complete without mentioning his beloved wife, Edie Wilkie, a person as warm, friendly and deeply committed to compassionate public policy and peace as Don himself. Edie ran the influential Members of Congress for Peace Through Law which provided information and analysis on issues from Central America to weapons systems to military reform and the campaign against nuclear weapons. In an institution where many viewed her as an invaluable intellectual asset and, I presume, many others dismissed her as a hopelessly idealistic pacifist, Edie was always a dependable source of vital, complex data while maintaining an unparalleled sense of humor and even-handedness. You couldn’t have created a more perfect companion for Don, and Edie’s untimely passing could not have upset her friends and colleagues more deeply.

Hopefully, the insult of anonymity will not befall Don Edwards, who died last week at the age of 100, more than two decades after leaving the House where he presided like a resurrection of the Founding Fathers over the preservation of the United States Constitution. But eventually, it probably will, as those who served and worked with him, whom he knew as constituents and friends, who covered and admired him during his long career themselves shuffle off the stage. We are indeed fortunate to have shared that stage in one fashion or another with a man who should be remembered by history as the embodiment of devotion to the Constitution and an exemplar of dedicated public service.