A Eulogy for Bob Edgar

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Bob Edgar (Credit: Robbin Holland)

There are people in public life who cannot be bought, flattered, or hammered into submission. Bob Edgar was one of them. The president of Common Cause died this week at age 69, after working out on his treadmill. That’s the way he lived: on the go, overbooked, overworked — and always overjoyed to be heading for the front lines in the fight for democracy.

Elected to Congress in 1974 as a Democrat by working class voters in a Republican district, when he arrived in Washington he was appalled by the stench of corruption still rising from the Watergate scandals. He and other newcomers set out to clean house — the House of Representatives — what used to be called, as he liked to remind us, “the People’s House.” They opened the windows and tried to toss the money-changers out through them.

He fought for transparency in government, for requiring chemical companies to tell people about the toxic substances poured into their neighborhoods, for public transportation, for veterans back from Vietnam suffering from PTSD and the effects of Agent Orange. But when he railed against the buying and selling of influence and “pork-barrel” graft, he found himself at odds with the leaders of his own party.

Defeated in his race for the Senate from Pennsylvania, he became head of the Claremont School of Theology (he had a divinity degree) and then general secretary of the National Council of Churches, which was under odious and malicious attacks at the time from the political and religious right and from neo-conservatives who feared the gospel of peace might subvert their imperial designs on American power. An elder in the Methodist church, Bob was steeped in the ethical teachings of the 18th century evangelist John Wesley who, believing faith called for action, founded the movement whose disciples opposed slavery, served the neglected and needy, worked for prison reform, and started schools and orphanages, weaving in countless ways what became part and parcel of America’s social contract.

This heritage Bob combined with the prophetic witness of the Hebrew prophets, mixed both with the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s grasp of realpolitik, and came out swinging. Called to lead the non-profit, non-partisan citizens lobby Common Cause, he was outraged at the dirty money pouring secretly into our political system, outraged at the corporate titans and predatory rich who bought up politicians as if they were hog futures, outraged at the K-street fixers who had once been public servants, outraged at the violation and undoing of laws and regulations established over time to serve as a brake on private wealth and power.

He abhorred the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision, which he said was pulling the shroud of plutocracy over our barely-breathing body politic. Recently, he took on President Obama for his grubbing of big donations for his new advocacy organization. “It just stinks!” Bob said. He feared for the country’s egalitarian spirit if the excesses of money in politics were not curbed.

One day, over coffee, we talked about how, if the predators of democracy are going to use brass knuckles to pulverize us, we have to fight back with sharp elbows. He never looked happier than when he was taking them to court or mounting a peaceful protest against them, as he famously did against the multibillionaire Koch brothers and their courtiers gathered in Palm Springs.

His outrage was never about anger, it was about injustice. And he never demonized or despised his adversaries. He just thought it wrong for them to use their great advantage of wealth to buy the country up and the government off. So he got on his treadmill this week, preparing for yet another trip, another meeting, another rally — this time in Oklahoma — to do battle with the plutocrats and their mercenaries. He didn’t make it. But others will, and somehow, I don’t think they will be alone.

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  • David O’D.

    Excellent, Bill! I wonder who will take up the mantle and continue on. It seems ever more bleak with each passing day from my perspective. I suppose we, individually, must continue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shannon-Hallett/100001404782559 Shannon Hallett

    I keep a hopeful eye out for “heros” but beginning to think they are all mythological! Bob was one of those rare humans that seem to be missing today!

  • http://www.facebook.com/pastordeb.conklin Pastor Deb Conklin

    Bob was one of my pastor’s in Philadelphia in the early 70′s and and important influence in my life. I’ve been so pleased with where his faith journey has taken him over the years.

  • Joe Brownrigg

    In the middle of all the macro-prophetic actions, Bob also took time to assist me in getting to Israel/Palestine as a videographer to bring back the battleground for all three Abrahamic faiths. He also sang behind me in worship…and had a much better voice than I did! Power to the faithful in action. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Bob is one of them!

  • Teresa Cain

    Beautiful.

  • Rosemary Connors

    I knew Bob for almost 40 years, having been privileged to work for him on his campaigns and then his District staff. Thank you for this eloquent tribute. These words mean so much coming from you, Bill, because I know you were one of his heroes. Peace.

  • Cynthia Astle

    Thank you for this touching remembrance of Bob Edgar. I thought of Bob today as I took part in the People’s Response to the George W. Bush library dedication. We dressed in the black of mourning and held signs reminding passers-by of the death and destruction dealt by the Bush Administration, which the new presidential center is trying to legitimize. Many of us were there for precisely the reasons you cite: the prophetic outrage at injustice. I hope Bob was pleased.

  • Vince Isner

    Thank you for your thoughtful remembrance of Bob Edgar’s life and legacy – Bob always seemed to relish the opportunity to step into the arena to set the example for the rest of us, whether in the foxes den of Fox “news” or at a demonstration on Capitol Hill. Working with Bob at the National Council of Churches, it always seemed to me that his courage always outpaced their caution – his heart for justice stood at odds with their fear of relevance. It always delighted me that he hit his stride at Common Cause where, with the wind at his back, he could model with distinction one of his favorite quotes – “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.” Thanks, Bob, for leading the fight. We will miss you.

  • Anonymous

    As a California Common Cause activist and state board member and a United Methodist in San Diego, I was fortunate enough to attend First Church a couple of years ago and hear Bob remind us that “we are the leaders we have been searching for.” Well, maybe – Bob was rarely wrong about such things. But we know that HE was the leader WE had been searching for, and every place at which he spent time, whether it was Common Cause, or the Claremont School of Theology, or the U.S. Congress, or wherever…each place was better because of his presence. Such a strong and smart (and punful) person, already sorely missed…

    Thank you, Bill, for the perfect eulogy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.brown.3762 Rick Brown

    I grew up in Bob’s District outside Philadephia. My Mom worked on his campaign and
    was so happy when he pulled off a major upset; it was one of her proudest moments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/philip.jenks Philip E. Jenks

    Thanks, Bill. I’m a former Pennsylvanian who admired Bob Edgar since he was first elected to Congress, and I had the honor of working for him at the National Council of Churches. As you said so well, Bob motivated thousands to work for justice without hating the harbingers of injustice. It took more than political acumen to do that — it took a strong faith and a loving heart. The horizon looks awfully empty without him.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much, Bill, for your eloquent appreciation of a truly good and great man. I was privileged to be a volunteer in his first Congressional campaign and the first re-election campaign. Never once in the years since did he disappoint us. Never once did he tarnish his reputation for integrity. Never once did he give less than his all in trying to help others and make our world better. I see none like him in DC today, not even those with whom I basically agree. I still have hope that others will step forward soon.
    Ray Carlin

  • Anonymous

    Yes, on Capitol Hill is where I encountered this extraordinary man. He was so energizing, so eloquent, and I knew he was a special human being. We are the poorer for his being gone so soon.

  • Beverly Isenson

    A fine tribute to an extraordinary person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Tim2259 Tim Powers

    Bob Edgar was a good man. Thanks Bill; a fitting eulogy for Bob.

  • http://www.facebook.com/will.robinson1 Will Robinson

    Bob spent his entire lifetime in service to people. He was the real thing – a true “you shall be known by your works” Christian. The years I worked for Bob were spent in an environment of diversity and inclusiveness that would be a model now – and that was in the 70′s and early 80′s. In all my years I have never met anyone who was so unafraid to speak truth to power – whether it was taking on Committee Chairman over pork barrel projects, fighting corporate interests over Superfund legislation, or reuniting a son with a Cuban father in a very hostile political environment.

  • kathy

    Thank you Bill Moyers for being the person of integrity who is leading me to know more about many unjust things. I am grateful!

  • Wesley’Pat’ Pattillo

    One of the best things that happened to me was the day in 2000 that Bob Edgar hired me to be on the leadership team of the National Council of Churches. He had energy, integrity and optimism to spare — a rare man with the courage of his convictions in a world too full of apathy, self-preservation and phony patriotism. Working for him was a roller-coaster experience of speaking truth to power, in the church as well as in society. Bob believed that “ego disarmament” was required of true leaders, and he practiced it in many interventions that never made news, but made a difference. He was the same out of the limelight as he was on the platform. The world needs more strong citizens of transparent character and fearless compassion like Bob Edgar. I am thankful to have known him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.pirlo.5 James Pirlo

    Thanks, Just can’t say enough about Bob and How wonderful he was to everyone, He will be missed by many.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RobertHPike Robert H. Pike

    Only the Good die young…
    You’ll be missed….

  • 1938marine

    It is people like Bob Edgar that gives one faith in a better America to come. May he forever rest peace.

  • A.O.W.M.

    Well done, Cynthia, and your fellow ‘Men and Woman in Black’! (Movie reference not intended.) Far too much gladhanding and backslapping seemed to be going on at that particular address on the SMU campus the other day. Yes, yes, I know, it’s well to make nice when a Presidential Library is in the offing. Considering how few other libraries are opening elsewhere, we should be grateful. Then again, possibly not. But Mr. Edgar was with you in spirit. Thanks also, Mr. Moyers, for your fine memoriam.

  • http://www.facebook.com/adam.shaw.5454 Adam Shaw

    Yes, yes and again yes.

  • David Glassberg

    Bob Edgar was my congressman in the early 1980s and I gladly worked my ass off to get him reelected. Two summers ago, he returned to the Capitol building for a sit in, and got arrested for protesting the cuts to the poor that were part of the ridiculous budget deal that we are still suffering from. The nation will miss his passion and integrity.

  • Jan Innes

    Bob and I grew up in the same church, and he was a year ahead of me in school. It sounds easy to say, but it’s true — It was clear when he was in his teens that there was greatness there. He was a born leader and a person of crystal clear faith, great integrity, and boundless caring and compassion. He was one of the finest people I have ever known. It was a great joy to have him as a friend and role model.

  • Lou Ann Giunta

    Bob Edgar was a tremendous American. I am still in shock with his untimely passing.. He will be sorely missed, but I sincerely hope his vital work will live on.