The Lessons and Legacy of a Watergate Baby

Three years ago today, my friend and mentor passed away unexpectedly. By its nature, sudden death is shocking. It's especially stunning when it happens to someone as vibrant and healthy as Bob Edgar appeared the day before he died, when he wisecracked to me that he figured he had until age 70 before "living on borrowed time."

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Bob Edgar held a number of titles in his life. A father, husband, and friend, he was co-founder and co-director of Philadelphia's first homeless shelter for women and children, now called the People's Emergency Center. An ordained United Methodist minister and university chaplain, he went on to become a member of Congress for twelve years, amassing one of the most liberal voting records in the House of Representatives. President Reagan called him "the most dangerous man in America" as a result, and a powerful conservative Christian lobbying group gave him a zero rating. Later, he was the president of a theological seminary, the leader of an ecumenical consortium, a peace activist with five arrests for civil disobedience, and ultimately, president of Common Cause.

There's another title Bob Edgar held, too: "Watergate Baby."

Americans across the country elected a large, new class of young, fresh-faced members of Congress in 1974. The election took place just three months after President Nixon's resignation. Many of the 75 individuals elected that year were political novices in their twenties and thirties -- a full two decades younger than the average age of the previous class. Bob Edgar was only 31-years old at the he was elected. Hence, the group's nickname: "Watergate Babies."

Some of his fellow Watergate Babies went on to serve many decades in Congress -- leaders like Sen. Tom Harkin, Sen. Chris Dodd, Sen. Max Baucus, Sen. Paul Simon, Rep. Henry Waxman, and Rep. George Miller. One member of the class, Rep. Rick Nolan, retired, but mounted a comeback and is serving in Congress today.

The voters who sent the Watergate Babies to Capitol Hill had just witnessed the biggest political scandal in American history. President Nixon's abuse of power, obstruction of justice and contempt for ethical standards in government demanded a response. It was past time to clean up government.

The Watergate Babies were reformers -- eager to speak truth to power and challenge conventions that they viewed as arbitrary at best and corrupt at worst. One of them, Rep. Bob Carr, observed that the rules of Congress were "rigged [in] the power of relative few. We wanted the power of more." They were shocked at how crusty, old southern conservatives still controlled so much of how Congress operated, often behind closed doors and without any input from other elected leaders. They came to town surprising their elders and rattling the old guard.

The Watergate Babies wanted to democratize the House of Representatives, which had just barely started opening up committee hearings to the press and public back in the early 1970s.

Most famously, the newbies took on the seniority system for committee chairs, creating a "New Members Caucus" before which chairman were asked to "explain why they deserved to wield the gavel.

At first, the chairs refused, leading the freshmen to vow to oppose them unanimously. Eventually, the chairs relented," according to an author of an upcoming book about the Watergate Babies. Several chairman performed especially poorly in their interviews. The powerful heads of the Banking, Agriculture, and Armed Services committees all lost their gavels. It was a political earthquake.

A historian at Princeton, Julian Zelizer, summed up the Watergate Babies' other achievements throughout the 1970s:

  • Passing new sunshine laws to make the legislative process more transparent;
  • Setting-up new ethics reforms to raise the standard of accountable government;
  • Passing stronger campaign finance disclosure laws; and
  • Reforming the Senate's filibuster rule by lowering the threshold for cloture from 67 to 60.

With some government reform goals accomplished, most of the Watergate Babies then turned their attention to other matters that were more about substantive issues they cared about. Watergate Babies Tom Harkin and Henry Waxman ushered through transformative legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act of 1990.

Some subsequent classes of Congress shook up the institution in attention-grabbing ways. The Republican Revolution in 1994 comes to mind, as does the Tea Party victory in 2010. The difference is that both of those wave elections ushered in periods of divisive, shutdown politics. That attitude and approach to the responsibility of governing differs in leaps and bounds from that of the Watergate Babies.

We're at another turning point in American history in 2016. Trust in government is at record lows, and economic inequality is at record highs. Americans no longer feel like they have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives because the levers of government power are in the hands of those more responsive to the wealthy. It's a time of nearly unlimited money in politics, with the vast majority of it coming from a homogeneous and highly unrepresentative segment of society.

Extreme gerrymandering has made elections less and less competitive. When Bob Edgar was elected in 1974, he won in a district that hadn't voted for a Democrat since the Civil War. His Republican constituents routinely re-elected him -- sometimes by tighter margins than others. Such repeated victories are hard to imagine today in many congressional districts.

We need a new class of leaders to pick up where the Watergate Babies left off. Some of their business has been undone and needs repair -- and some of it was never quite finished.

Maybe a class of "Citizens United Babies" will do the trick.

American democracy is premised on choices and fair play. If we boost political participation and empower voters, chances are, we'll begin to again see signs of a government that works for everyone. We'll always have spirited disagreements and struggles over policy, but at least we'll restore some semblance of balance to the playing field.

Whatever the solutions, none are complete without a re-commitment to the Golden Rule.

I've thought some about how Bob Edgar would respond to the crass, divisive and disturbing rhetoric of the 2016 primary race for the White House. He'd probably say that the candidates need to "SMILE!" a little more. And then he'd recite one of his favorite poems that I heard him say many times, to many people:

He drew a circle that shut me out --
'Heretic,' 'rebel,' a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!