(an appreciation, for her family and friends, from Caleb Rossiter)
For 25 years Edie would greet me with, “Hi, Beet” – which is short for “Bito” from “Calebito,” a reference to one of her most effective reports at the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, “Who are the Contras?” That 1985 report used interviews with defectors to paint a charming picture of the high command of Ronald Reagan’s Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters – most of whom helpfully waged their dirty war under their Somoçista nicknames – Comandante Pajarito, La Policia, El Toro, Animalito, and Tigrito. Edie began to use “Bito” as we were, literally, hiding under our desks with Margie Ellis, our doors locked, to avoid the reporters who had been sent by their networks to get an advance copy, which Willie Blacklow, George Miller’s press secretary, had agreed to give to only one network. “Calebito – is that Tigrito, coming to kill us?”
As you can see, my memories of Edie come mostly from the struggles of the ‘80s, when I was privileged to be her aide as we tried to end the Reagan Wars in Central America and Africa…and tried to stop more from arising from the multi-president policy, yesterday and today, of arming repressive but strategically cooperative regimes.
Edie told me that when she came to DC in 1968 after graduating from Vassar, she intended to stay just a summer and help end the Vietnam War. Of course, she stayed a lifetime because the assumptions that had inevitably led to Vietnam (about America’s domination, exceptionalism, and right to threaten with nuclear and conventional weapons) have continued to lead inevitably to other devastating foreign and military policies, right up to Bush and Obama and their “long war” for control of the Middle East and Africa.
For Edie and the Caucus, the 1980’s were the terrible era of Reagan and the infant neo-cons; the time when Dick Cheney first learned to lie, as a Congressman, about intelligence data – Nicaraguan, not Iraqi… when Richard Perle’s nuclear madness drove Berk Bedell to tearfully cover his ears in a Caucus briefing, when Paul Wolfowitz was seeing democrats in Marcos and Suharto, when Mobutu and Doe were our stable allies and their countries were CIA action centers for other adventures, and when Elliott Abrams told Committees that U.S.-aided police and soldiers weren’t in the death squads, as they killed half a million Central Americans and made 2 million more refugees… and instead of being convicted for that lie, pled guilty to another.
It is important to remember that despite the truly insane Senate and the Dixiecratic House Democrats who came in with Reagan, despite the many losses we suffered along the way just to keep the issues alive in Committees and on the House and Senate floors, despite the overwhelming political resources the administration brought to bear, despite the pro-imperial nature of the culture, the media, and the American mindset, Edie and her friends – Dave Bonior, Jim Leach, Ed Markey, Mark Hatfield, Barbara Boxer, George Miller, Nancy Pelosi, and scores of other Members of Congress, Dick Conlon, George Kundanis, Tim Rieser, and hundreds of other congressional staff, and Cindy Buhl, Holly Burkhalter, Suzy Kerr, and thousands of other NGO warriors – Edie and her friends persevered and won: the nuclear freeze and the delegitimization of the nuclear threat in U.S. foreign policy, the peace settlements in Central America, one-person one vote in South Africa… all unlikely, all actually nearly impossible. She didn’t just slow Reagan down by challenging his version of reality and making him work for his desires – which is a victory in itself, at all times, for anti-imperial patriots. She actually won outright at times – and saved people’s dignity and lives.
In Central America Edie and her Members backed peace, rather than one group of thugs or the other, as Reagan, the Republicans, the Dixies, and the Soviets did… and arguably Carter before and Bush afterwards, albeit in a less fervent key. And peace came through the talks and settlements that were always there to be had if both sides realized that they would not be supported to fight to total victory. In 1985 Edie was the first to bring Father Ignacio Ellacuría to talk to Members of Congress, and it was his death in 1989 that spurred Congress to end military aid to El Salvador – which within a year ended the war there, with invaluable leadership from Joe Moakley, Jim McGovern, Bill Woodward, Jack Murtha, Leonel Gómez, and Father Paul Tipton, among many others.
I went through Edie’s papers in the National Archives two years ago for a book I was writing, and even I, who had been there, was stunned to see the sheer volume of the material and motivation she used to move the Caucus’s 140 members to action. It was a veritable blizzard of memos, reports, strategies, and intelligence that allowed Members to take on the electorally thankless task of fighting an administration on foreign policy. Edie knew when a simple change of authorship would gain a victory – such as making a ban on U.S. combat troops in Central America a Foley amendment rather than, sorry Ed, a Markey amendment. She knew how important it was for Members to gain familiarity with an issue and to practice their approach at perfectly planned private lunches and dinners with experts, so that they were then confident and correct when it came time for committee and floor work. She knew who had the reputation and the skills to lead on an issue. And she knew all this as one of the great political noses. Edie once declined to speak to a college class I was teaching because she realized in trying to write her remarks that she was killing her instincts by analyzing them. Of course, Donlon was happy to come take her place, and explain through voting records the difference between Democrats and Republicans to those lost souls who insist that they’re all the same.
Edie was the Queen of the Arms Controllers, as we called her after an Emmy Lou Harris song she loved. She would bound into House Annex II every day, climb the four flights to the Caucus, her styrofoam coffee cup and single hard-boiled egg in hand, and stride elegantly in, always wearing those slick slacks. In fact, my wife Maya and I never saw her in a dress until our wedding, seven years after we met in Edie’s conference room. We would banter about each other’s clothing. I focused on her big gold belt, which resembled a pro-wrestling championship award, and she focused on my brown pinstriped suit, which I admit did look a lot like a pimp’s. She had to remind me a few times that others in the office did not share our enjoyment of these vicious attacks.
Edie adored her chairs, Jim Leach, Matt McHugh, Mark Hatfield, and Howard Berman, especially after Howard stood up to the Pentagon and demanded better data for the report Todd Stein and I were writing on the sordid histories of the supposedly reformist Salvadoran military high command. Howard asked Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in writing, “is this some kind of joke?” We got the data… not as quickly as Joe Moakley got his Pentagon information by telling Cheney in purple Boston prose exactly where he could put his request for a Rule for the defense bill, but quickly enough to put some shit on the Tandona’s shoes before the Moakley-Murtha vote that ended the war.
Edie loved conspiring with Dick Conlon and John David Isaacs, with little George and Big George (that’s Kundanis and Miller), and she took pride in the successes of her staff as they moved out on their own: Jeffrey Scott Duncan, to work with Ed Markey, or Lara Iglitzin, to run the Jackson Foundation in Seattle.
Edie could be carefully roguish, as when she approved an April Fool’s version of our Friday Week Ahead, called Weakly Ahead. It announced that the Senate was scheduled to vote on declaring war on six different countries before noon on Monday – and, given the makeup of the Senate in 1985, we could just as easily have said 20 countries….
And I will always remember Edie joking about what a heartthrob TransAfrica director Randall Robinson was after she found him in the waiting room when she went to bail her bedraggled husband out of jail during the anti-apartheid protests. Poor Don was still reeling from a night of Walter Fauntroy’s jail-house preaching…
For seven years – beginning with the painful chemical-weapons and contra trade-off in 1983 and ending with the peace settlements in Nicaragua and El Salvador – Edie made me feel like a valued younger brother, and not an employee. She was irritated only once.
We had published a notice on an upcoming Salvador vote that Edie had not had time to edit. She read it, and was steamed. I asked her if she was worried if our Members would think the piece was too partisan in favor of a particular amendment. She said, “I don’t care if they think we’re partisan. I care if they think we can’t count!” She was right – my estimate of the expected vote range for one of Gerry Studds’s amendments was, shall we say, optimistic.
What did I learn from Edie?
And one last, very important lesson: Good romance takes time and effort.
Edie said that you had to work at it every day, and always think of your flame’s happiness and interests, rather than your own. She and Don did just that with their little phone call every busy morning: “How was your meeting?” (because they each certainly would have had some meeting!) Maya and I adopted that as a joke – we still call whenever we can during the work day, even if we know that there have been no meetings, and so are paying tribute to Don and Edie each time we start the conversation with “How was your meeting?”
We should remember Edie as a defender of women’s dignity because that was, quietly, such a huge part of what she was trying to achieve in the way she worked. She organized the top-ranking women in arms control and peace issues to endorse pro-life Mark Hatfield over his pro-choice opponent, because she believed that women of all people should support the most important peace activist in Congress. Edie was part of Women for a Meaningful Summit, and went to Reykjavik to hold up their anti-nuke banner with Sissy Farenthold, so that Reagan and Gorby could see it on their way to the little negotiations that almost could. And when Edie felt excluded from a congressional strategy session because of gender, she would make an appointment with the Member to have a heart-to-heart about it… and he would become an even better friend and ally as a result.
I think that I will best remember Edie as a big shot who didn’t act like one and didn’t see herself as one. I will remember her as someone willing to do all the little things, like a perfectly laid-out lunch event, and not just the big things, like the overall arms control strategy for the year, to promote peace.
In Dante’s Purgatorio, one of the images held out before the travelers toward the light is that of King David throwing aside pomp to honor the Ark of the Covenant, not caring what others thought about the lack of stature this implied:
And there before the Holy Vessel, dancing
With girt-up robes, the humble Psalmist moved,
Less than a king, and more, in his wild prancing.
That was Edie Wilkie. Less than a queen, and more, because she was willing to do everything necessary to promote peace and human rights. This is the legacy our dear friend leaves us.
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