* One of the giants of Illinois history has died. The New York Times has an excellent obituary…
Charles H. Percy, a former United States senator from Illinois and a moderate Republican who clashed with President Richard M. Nixon over Watergate and whose own presidential ambitions were stymied by Nixon’s resignation, died Saturday in Washington. He was 91.
His death was announced by the office of his son-in-law, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia. Mr. Percy had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease for many years.
A three-term senator, Mr. Percy went to Washington in 1967 after a strikingly successful career as a businessman. In 1949, at the age of 29, he was named president of Bell & Howell and then oversaw its rapid growth. [..]
Mr. Percy was talked about as presidential material almost from the time he entered politics in 1964, when he ran for governor of Illinois; he narrowly lost to Otto Kerner Jr. The notion gained even wider currency in 1966, when, in an upset, he gained a Senate seat by defeating Paul H. Douglas, a respected three-term Democratic incumbent.
For many Republicans, Mr. Percy’s business background, Midwestern roots and moderate views in the increasingly liberal political climate of the 1960s made him an attractive alternative to the hard-right conservatism that voters had rejected in 1964 in the landslide defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater.
Go read the whole thing.
One of his most influential actions as senator was his recommendation in 1970 that James R. Thompson become first assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago. It was part of a deal which, in turn, would lead to Thompson becoming the top federal prosecutor and later the state’s longest serving governor. Other Thompson assistants were later elevated by Percy to the U.S. attorney’s office.
“He didn’t have to listen to me on a choice of a U.S. attorney or a choice of a judge,” Thompson said. “But he was always willing to listen and go to bat for good people and as a result, we got good people on the district and appellate court and in the U.S. attorney’s office.”
Percy also chose Chicago lawyer John Paul Stevens and recommended him to the White House for the U.S. Court of Appeals bench in Chicago in 1970. Stevens later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice until his retirement last year.
A moderate, Percy was disdained for much of his career by conservative Republicans nationally and in his home state. He stated throughout his political career that one of his main goals was to broaden the base of the Republican Party and to make it comfortable with diverse points of view.
The biggest controversy of his second term came when Sen. Percy, the State of Israel Bonds Committee’s 1970 Man of the Year, made a visit to the Middle East in 1975 and called on Israel to “take some risks for peace’’ by negotiating with Yasser Arafat and withdrawing to its 1967 borders.
Pro-Israel groups never forgave Percy — though, ironically, his suggestions were embraced in subsequent peace efforts.
He was elected to a third term in 1978, but in 1984, his image was tarred in a bitter Republican primary, and he was defeated in the fall by Democrat Paul Simon.
* Associated Press…
Percy 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.
* US Sen. Mark Kirk…
“I am deeply saddened at the loss of Senator Charles Percy. Senator Percy proudly served our country in the Navy and the Senate. As a job creator, he expanded Bell & Howell’s employment 12-fold. As our Senator, he chaired the Foreign Relations Committee during America’s comeback that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. His brand of moderate fiscal conservatism will be missed. I send my sincere condolences to the Percy family during this difficult time.”
* More react…
Former Illinois Gov. James Thompson said the late senator was “a classic example of what a public official should be.”
Thompson says Percy was unquestionably a Republican party member and promoter but could work with Democrats and independents, too.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois says Percy was a political opponent but “always a friend.” He says Percy was “always viewed as honorable and honest in his representation of our state.”
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in the name of Charles H. Percy to The Friends of Georgetown Waterfront Park (P.O. Box 3653, Washington, D.C. 20027) or WETA (3939 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206).
* Photos: The life of Charles H. Percy