The Soldier of the Constitution


Through the years, I have often referred in this column to the retired California Congressman Don Edwards as “the Congressman from the Constitution.” A Democrat, but one who transcended all party lines, Edwards regarded the Bill of Rights as his Constituency.

On August 10 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., Don received the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award for his “unswerving devotion to the Constitution and its values throughout his career.”

The honor comes at a time when most members of Congress are passive accomplices in the serial assaults on the Bill of Rights by George W. Bush and John Ashcroft. That definitely includes most of the leadership of both parties in the House and Senate.

This abdication of the oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution is not surprising from Senator Trent Lott or House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Nor, by now, is it in the least unexpected from Senator Tom Daschle or House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. Consider Daschle, chief spokesperson for the Democratic Party. Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, interviewed Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold in the magazine’s May issue. Feingold was the only senator to vote against Ashcroft’s USA Patriot Act.

As the Ashcroft bill was being pushed through Congress, Daschle instructed his troops to vote for it unanimously without any prior debate or amendments. When Feingold refused, he recalled, “the majority leader came to the floor and spoke very sternly to me, in front of his staff and my staff, saying, ‘You can’t do this, the whole thing will fall apart.’ ”

Late that night, Feingold offered amendments to the act. Then, Feingold told The Progressive, Daschle commanded the other Democratic senators: “I want you to vote against this amendment and all the other Feingold amendments; don’t even consider the merits.”

Said Feingold in the interview: “This was one of the most fundamental pieces of legislation relating to the Bill of Rights in the history of our country! It was a low point for me in terms of being a Democrat and somebody who believes in civil liberties.”

Does anybody know what Andrew Cuomo’s and Carl McCall’s positions are on the Bush-Ashcroft war on civil liberties? Or, for that matter, the concerns, if any, of senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton?

Now a brief account—a full one would take a whole book—as to why Don Edwards is so grievously missed in present-day Washington. He served in the House from 1962 to 1995; for 23 years, Don was chair of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights—which has oversight of the FBI.

Himself a former FBI agent, Don set unprecedentedly high standards for containing the FBI within the bounds of the Constitution, very much including the Bill of Rights.

For the Voice—and later, also for The Washington Post—I covered his continual battles against Republican and Democratic administrations intent on diminishing individual rights and liberties. For one example, he helped abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee. Often, as now, these raids on the Constitution were supported by the majority of the American people.

In the 1970s, Edwards—along with Senator Frank Church and his committee—exposed the FBI’s pervasive abuses of civil liberties in J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro (counter-intelligence program), which monitored, infiltrated, and disrupted entirely lawful civil rights and anti-war organizations.

Edwards then worked with Gerald Ford’s attorney general Edward Levi in formulating FBI investigative guidelines faithful to the Constitution. It is these guidelines that John Ashcroft has contemptuously discarded in order to allow the FBI to go back to the hunting fields of Cointelpro.

In the 1960s, Don Edwards was floor leader of the Omnibus Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Equal Rights Amendment (still yet to be put into law). Later he was also co-sponsor of the Americans With Disabilities Act. And he worked against the recurring, fervent attempts to pass a constitutional amendment punishing desecration of the American flag, the very symbol of our right to dissent, even those of us who are godless Americans.

Outside of Congress, Don took part in civil rights marches in the South; visited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Birmingham, Alabama, jail; spoke against apartheid while visiting South Africa; and was jailed for 22 hours in Washington for committing civil disobedience while picketing the South African embassy.

Don Edwards didn’t just speak against the death penalty. In 1993, before Governor George Ryan of Illinois declared a moratorium on the death penalty, and before the wider recognition of DNA evidence as a clear way of rescuing prisoners from death rows, Don—through his constitutional rights subcommittee—developed and issued a widely influential report, “Innocence and the Death Penalty: Assessing the Danger of Mistaken Executions.”

Characteristically, Edwards, though respected even by his opponents in Congress, refused a repeated request that he join the Intelligence Committee. He said that the people’s business should be done in public, and through his influence in the House he blocked various expansions of unreviewable intelligence-authorization powers.

Recently, I asked Don Edwards what he thought of the Bush-Ashcroft conception of the Bill of Rights. “The Bill of Rights,” he said, “is under assault. For example, locking people up—citizens or noncitizens—without being charged and without access to a lawyer is wrong. Under our system of justice, you must have a lawyer if you’re imprisoned.

“Also,” he added vigorously, “Congress is not exercising its oversight powers over the Department of Justice, including the FBI. Committees should be hauling in Justice Department officials to justify what they’re doing.”

I sure wish Don Edwards were still in Congress so I could see him on C-SPAN confronting John Ashcroft with a copy of the Constitution.

The current Congress—with such few exceptions as Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Dick Armey of Texas, and the recently defeated Bob Barr of Georgia—is allowing crucial powers over all of us to accumulate in the executive branch. There are stirrings in some of the lower courts, but so far people are being locked up, without any rights, as if they were in China.

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