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Bob Eckhardt, 88; Texas Congressman Took On Oil Industry

November 15, 2001|From The Washington Post

Bob Eckhardt, a Texas Democrat who served 14 years in the House of Representatives as a maverick liberal from a conservative Houston congressional district, died Tuesday at a hospital in Austin of complications from a stroke. He was 88.

On Capitol Hill, Eckhardt was known as an independent thinker and a champion of consumers who often clashed with the big oil interests of his native state.

As chairman of an oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Eckhardt pushed for controls on oil and natural gas prices and fought for such consumer issues as warranty protections, auto safety and protections against moving company abuses. The Toxic Substance Control Act, a landmark for occupational health and safety, was one of his proudest accomplishments.

In 1975, he figured that legislation he had written keeping price controls on oil had saved consumers $63.8 billion. But the oil industry never forgave him. In the elections of 1976 and 1978, oil and gas lobbies tried hard to unseat him. In the Ronald Reagan presidential landslide of 1980, Eckhardt lost his seat to conservative Republican Jack Fields.

Loquacious, eloquent and irreverent, Eckhardt was a gifted storyteller who liked to quote obscure passages from Shakespeare. He was said to have been able to find fun even in the relentless grind of legislative drudgery.

Celia Morris, his third wife, described him in her autobiography, "Finding Celia's Place," as "a big man [who] wore a bow tie, suspenders and vests more often than not, and his clothes were always a little mussed, except when he had on a three-piece white suit that made him look like an understudy for Big Daddy in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.' His exercise came from riding his bicycle--a habit that inspired a good many stories and more than one cartoon and landed him on the cover of a magazine for cyclists."

Eckhardt, a longtime resident of Capitol Hill, was a familiar sight pedaling his bicycle along the streets of his Washington neighborhood. "Unless you're racing or the weather is extremely hot, bike riding is relatively cool because you create your own breeze," he once said. To protect his head from the elements, he usually wore a wide-brimmed "Fort Worth lawyer's hat."

Robert Christian Eckhardt was born in Austin and graduated from the University of Texas and its law school. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces, then after the war practiced law in Texas. In 1958, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where he served until his election to Congress in 1966.

To his colleagues in the U.S. House, Eckhardt was known as an intellectual who marched to the beat of his own drummer.

"I was not willing to devote all my time to keeping this job," he said. Then-Federal Trade Commission Chairman Michael Pertschuk described Eckhardt at a 1980 political fund-raiser as "a beacon of rationality for people who believe that Congress can be more than it is. . . . Once I went up to see him about an issue, and I raised a question and then became quite uncomfortable because he wasn't saying anything. Then I realized he was thinking before he answered."

After losing his seat in 1980, Eckhardt lobbied for consumer interests, taught university seminars and wrote about the Constitution.

He was married and divorced three times.

Survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Orissa and Rosalind; and a daughter from his second marriage, Sarah.

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