Sunday, September 18, 2011

One of the last

Today I woke up and checked Twitter and saw a news story, as I so often do. This time it was that former US Senator from Illinois, Charles Percy, had died, aged 91. I was actually kind of sad to read that.

Percy was called a “liberal Republican” back at a time when that phrase could be used without either irony or judgement. By the time he was finally defeated in 1984, that had completely changed.

Percy first rose to prominence when he became president of Bell & Howell at age 29. He ran for Illinois governor in 1964, losing to Otto Kerner, the first Governor I can remember. Kerner was also the first of four Illinois Governors in my lifetime to be convicted of corruption; he was prosecuted by then-US Attorney, Republican James R. Thompson who as later elected to four terms as Governor; I worked on his first two campaigns, 1976 and 1978 (by 1982, I wasn’t campaigning for Republicans anymore).

Percy was a “Rockefeller Republican”, referring to the liberal Republicans of the Northeast and Midwest, epitomised my Nelson Rockefeller. This was the kind of Republican I was.

Percy ran for US Senate in 1966 and won, an upset defeat of Senator Paul Douglas. During the campaign, Percy’s daughter, Valerie, was murdered; the crime has never been solved. Percy suspended his campaign for two weeks, leading cynics to suggest that a “sympathy vote” carried Percy to victory. The crime led CBS to postpone, then cancel, airing the film Psycho.

In 1972, he comfortably won re-election against Chicago “Machine Democrat” Roman Pucinski. In 1976, he supported Gerald Ford for election as president; I did, too. In 1978, Percy was running for his third term, which was expected to be a cakewalk. A foreign policy hardliner, Alex Seith, won the Democratic nomination and suddenly Percy’s campaign was in trouble.

I was at Southern Illinois University then, and volunteered for the Jackson County Republican Party to help re-elect both Governor Jim Thompson and Senator Percy. I found that the local party wasn’t terribly interested in Thompson’s campaign (he was from Chicago), but they were pretty hostile to Percy. I’d learned by then that the party’s rightwing, poised to take over only two years later, despised “Rockefeller Republicans”. Some referred to them as “Eastern Establishment Republicans”, which was meant to be both derisive and dismissive shorthand for “liberal”.

Percy narrowly won re-election, but the party was moving more and more to the right and Percy had trouble maintaining connection to it. In 1984, Paul Simon—the liberal Democratic US Representative from Southern Illinois—defeated him. This showed how much the Republican Party had changed: 1984 was the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election, with Reagan winning all but six of Illinois’ 102 counties. Percy couldn’t leverage that for re-election: He lost with 46% of the vote to 54% for Simon; by comparison, Reagan won Illinois 56% to 43% for Walter Mondale.

I liked Percy as a Senator. He got merit selection of federal judges so they weren’t politically connected Chicago hacks anymore, and he pushed for repatriation of the Panama Canal back to Panama. If I were truly honest, however, his successor, Paul Simon, was better—indeed, he was probably the best in my lifetime.

But, once a liberal, always a liberal, right? Percy was one of the last of the liberal Republicans, and one of the last Republicans I would vote for. And that, to me, is truly sad.

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

It was sad.
Also sad, two daughters of politicians, Kara Kennedy (daughter of Ted) and Eleanor Mondale (daughter of Walter) both died at the age of 51. My wife went to college with Eleanor.