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Lee Edwards’ life shaped by Catholicism and anti-communist ideals

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In 1956, Lee Edwards was a 20-something college graduate, fresh out of the Army and studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. It was there he heard the news that Hungarians had revolted against the policies imposed by the Soviet Union.

“(It was) this incredible story of young men and women standing up to the Soviet troops and tanks and might, saying ‘Be gone, get out of our country — we want freedom,’ ” said Edwards. 

But the Soviets retaliated. Thousands of Hungarians died and even more fled the country. Edwards waited in vain for the United States to act. “Having been lifted to the heights by these acts of courage, I was furious, I was embarrassed, I was ashamed, and I became resolute,” he said. The revolution fueled the aspiring writer to dedicate his career to politics.

This interest was piqued early in life. Though born in Chicago, he spent most of his life in the Washington metropolitan area. His father was a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and his mother was involved in Republican women’s clubs. “I grew up in a political world,” said Edwards, a parishioner of St. Rita Church in Alexandria.

Though he was raised Protestant, he realized in college that he didn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection, and stopped practicing religion altogether. In Paris, “I spent a lot of time at cafés and cabarets, more than classes, and I realized that this was not working out,” he said. “I had to stop centering my life on me.”

Back in Washington, he began to attend different Protestant services around the city. “They had wonderful people, wonderful sermons, wonderful social hours, but there wasn’t anything more serious,” he said. Then Edwards attended Mass at St. Peter Church on Capitol Hill. “I said, ‘Oh, this is something different.’ ”

He began to speak with a priest at the Catholic Information Center, asking him questions about the Catholic faith. Eventually, the priest asked, “When are you going to stop talking about it and do it?” Edwards was baptized the following week, Dec. 13, 1958, the feast of St. Lucy.

“It’s what (Ronald) Reagan called part of the D.P. — Divine Plan,” he said, coloring his speech with anecdotes from conservative leaders, many of whom he knew personally. “I’m convinced I had to convert to be as effective as I have been in the political world. It gave me a foundation, a sense of what's right and what's wrong,” he said. “In this town, you can get caught up in political wins and losses.

“My faith has saved me more than once from doing something wrong and misguided (because) the end result of life should not be victory but salvation.”

After returning to the United States from France in 1957, Edwards began work in journalism and then politics, including Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. During his 20s, he and other young adults established Young Americans for Freedom, now Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization that hosts student conferences and a program for aspiring journalists. In the 1970s, he helped establish one of the first pro-life political action committees. For 20 years after the Goldwater campaign, Edwards ran his own public affairs firm, primarily serving conservative and anti-communist clients.

He met his wife, Anne, in 1963 at a political rally. She turned him down several times, he recalled, but on their first date they “really hit it off,” he said. A year and a half later, they were married at St. Thomas More Church in New York City. The couple has two daughters and 11 grandchildren.

In the late 1960s, Edwards wrote the first political biography on Reagan, interviewing the former movie star as he was considering a gubernatorial run in California. Edwards has since written 25 other books, including biographies of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr. During Reagan’s presidency, Edwards’ publisher asked him to update the book for a reprint. In the Oval Office, Edwards presented the president with a new copy of the book, which Edwards said tackily mentioned the assassination attempt on the jacket. Reagan looked at the book, then joked, “Sorry I ruined the ending for you.”

In his late 40s Edwards applied to The Catholic University of America in Washington, hoping to teach after earning his doctorate. He has taught there as an adjunct political professor for 30 years. He also serves as a distinguished fellow of conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation, which “unleashed” his opportunities to write even more historical books, he said. “It’s a terrific job. That’s basically what I am — I’m a writer.”

His latest book, Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty, is autobiographical. The dedication page pays homage to what he calls the pinnacle of his life — the unveiling of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Edwards and his friend, Lev Dobriansky, began to feel as if people had forgotten the atrocities committed in the name of communism. At a post-Mass brunch, Anne suggested they create a memorial.

In 1993, Congress unanimously passed a bill establishing a foundation that would educate the public about the history of communism and honor its many victims. In 2007, President George W. Bush dedicated the memorial’s statue, “the Goddess of Democracy” — a woman holding a torch aloft, which stands at the corner of Massachusetts and New Jersey Avenues. The memorial, and the organization’s ongoing work, fulfills the promise Edwards made to himself and to the Hungarian victims more than 60 years ago. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017