Former Illinois Senator Charles Percy dies at 91

September 17, 2011

Associated Press, Lynette Kalsnes contributing

(File/AP)
Percy in 1982

CHICAGO — Former Sen. Charles H. Percy, a former Foreign Relations Committee chairman whose moderate Republican views put him at odds with conservatives including former President Richard Nixon, died Saturday in Washington D.C. He was 91 and had Alzheimer’s disease.

His death was announced by the office of his son-in-law, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

Elected to the first of his three Senate terms in 1966, Percy was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. He was helped by handsome looks, a rich baritone voice and the relaxed self-confidence of the successful business executive he once was.

But the silver-haired senator, a supporter of the GOP's Nelson Rockefeller wing, came to power when moderate Republicans were becoming unfashionable on Capitol Hill. He ended up backing former President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 rather than go for it himself.

After that his chances seemed to fade. He won one more term in 1978 but was narrowly defeated for re-election in 1984 by Democrat Rep. Paul Simon.
"His insistence on a balanced perspective in his public life, (calling himself "fervently moderate"), helped us understand it is both possible and preferable to live in a world without partisanship," Jay Rockefeller said of his father-in-law.

Former Illinois Gov. James Thompson said the late senator was "a classic example of what a public official should be." Thompson said Percy was unquestionably a Republican Party member and promoter but could work with Democrats and independents, too. He said Percy “avoided the personal polarizing politics that seems to infest us at every level today.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois called Percy a political opponent but "always a friend." He said in a statement that Percy was "always viewed as honorable and honest in his representation of our state."

Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said Percy's "brand of moderate fiscal conservatism will be missed."

Percy opposed excessive partisanship, particularly as Foreign Relations Committee chairman.

"I don't want foreign policy developed just by one party and ride roughshod over the other party," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1984. "I'd much more value a bill that has bipartisan support. That's what this committee achieved in World War II, achieved in the Marshall Plan."

Percy's differences with conservative Republicans showed early on as he clashed with Nixon, opposing two successive U.S. Supreme Court nominees — Clement F. Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell.

He was the sponsor of a resolution calling for a special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal and became a critic of the Vietnam War.

He rankled the Reagan administration by opposing the nomination of Earnest Lefever as head of the State Department's human rights program.  Lefever had said he wanted the job only so he could dismantle the program.

But the former boy wonder business executive who engineered a spectacular turnaround at Bell & Howell Co. was also an apostle of free markets who sought to ease federal regulation of America's corporations. Percy often said that like Dwight D. Eisenhower he was "a conservative on money issues but a liberal on people issues.”

“Former Senator Percy is probably most famous that he won three elections in a row, in '66, '72, and '78, sort of an anachronism today 'cause he was a moderate Republican — he survived the Republican party going to the right,” said Paul Green, who directs the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University.

Don Rose, an independent political consultant, was an organizer with the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. He said Percy was a moderate critic of the war, but he called him a welcome voice just the same.

But Rose said foreign policy is not where the senator made his mark; instead, that would be in the federal court system. Percy agreed to let an independent lawyers group evaluate candidates for the federal bench, rather than relying on the political machine, as had happened in the past.

“As soon as he started appointing people they had approved and given high ratings to, people of both parties, it made a dramatic improvement in the federal bench, going from political hacks to genuinely independent, competent judges, by and large,” Rose said.

The most famous of Percy’s picks was John Paul Stevens, who later ascended to the Supreme Court. Rose says Percy's decision still has an impact today because it set a precedent for picking quality judges that others have had to follow.

Percy made his first foray into electoral politics in 1964 and was beaten for governor by Democratic incumbent Otto Kerner in an election year marked by a Democratic landslide.

Two years later, Percy ran for the Senate and unseated incumbent Democrat Paul H. Douglas, a classic New Deal liberal who had been one of his economics professors at the University of Chicago in the 1930s.

A tragedy occurred in mid-campaign. One of Percy's 21-year-old twin daughters, Valerie, was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in her bed in the family's lakefront home in suburban Kenilworth. Both candidates suspended campaigning for two weeks. No one has ever been charged in the case.

The surviving twin, Sharon Rockefeller, is president and chief executive of WETA, the public broadcasting station in Washington. Percy also had a son, Roger, with his first wife, Jeanne Dickerson, who died in 1947. He married Loraine Guyer in 1950, and they had a daughter, Gail, and son, Mark.

Percy's political problems multiplied in the 1970s. He was a kindly person who, drawing on his rich baritone voice, voluntarily recorded the entirety of Alexis de Toqueville's "Democracy in America" for use by the blind. But he sometimes lacked the common touch.

He was elected when Illinois was a swing state where he could get votes from some Democrats and liberals. Early in his career he had support from the United Auto Workers and always addressed the Illinois AFL-CIO at campaign time.

But the state gradually became more Democratic.

In 1978, Percy was able to dig out from a deficit in the polls with only weeks until Election Day, going on TV with ads in which he looked into the camera and said: "I got the message." He barely squeaked in.

Six years later he was defeated as some party conservatives deserted him, the liberal Simon highlighted his ties to President Ronald Reagan, and pro-Israel groups incensed by Percy's support of selling AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia poured contributions into Simon's campaign.

After his defeat, Percy remained in Washington, where he opened a consulting business, giving advice to clients on the foreign policy issues that had been his main interest in the Senate.