Charles H. Percy, a brilliant businessman who represented Illinois for nearly 20 years in the U.S. Senate, once headed the chamber’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee, and harbored unrealized ambitions to run for the presidency, died early Saturday. He was 91.
Percy died at 2:30 a.m. Eastern time at a Washington D.C. hospice, according to Kate Kelly, a spokeswoman with WETA, the public broadcasting station in Washington D.C., where Percy's daughter, Sharon Rockefeller is president and CEO.
Percy, a moderate Republican, entered the Senate in 1966 after defeating one liberal icon, the late Paul Douglas. But he was ousted by the state’s voters when they elected another Democratic icon, the late Paul Simon, in 1984.
Percy was an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, a supporter of international nuclear non-proliferation, a backer of federal consumer protection efforts and tougher enforcement of laws against drug abuse. He also was the first senator to call for a special prosecutor to investigate Watergate, the political dirty tricks scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.
In March 2009, Percy’s daughter, Sharon, the wife of Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., disclosed publicly that the former senator had Alzheimer’s disease. Speaking to the National Alzheimer’s Association, she described him at that time as "still the same sweet, deeply religious man he always was, with a core presence that’s as magnetic as ever."
Percy, a Christian Scientist who neither drank alcohol nor smoked, was an avid health advocate. No day on the campaign trail began without Percy swimming laps in a hotel pool.
Percy became chief executive of Bell & Howell Corp., then a manufacturer of projectors, cameras and other motion-picture equipment, in 1949 at the age of 29, becoming the youngest person to head a major corporation at that time. He resigned in 1963 to make his first bid for major elective office, an unsuccessful run for governor against the late Democratic Gov. Otto Kerner.
But even before launching his political career, Percy was seen as a potential president of the United States by such influential admirers as former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was only 40 years old and never had held public office when Richard Nixon approached him about the vice presidency in 1960. Soon afterward, John Kennedy rated Percy one of the most promising newcomers on the political scene.
In the mid-1960s, Percy made the cover of Time magazine as heir apparent to the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party. In 1968, Percy was touted by the New York Times’ James Reston as "the hottest political article in the Republican Party." Barry Goldwater suggested that Percy could be his party’s most formidable candidate. And Nixon thought the freshman senator from Illinois was his most threatening rival for the nomination.
"Percy and Nixon are two to one" odds for the nomination, Nixon observed privately in the winter of 1967. "(Ronald) Reagan is four to one. Rocky (Nelson Rockefeller) has no chance at all."
But in a private meeting with Nixon, the Illinois senator took himself out of contention for the nomination, saying that he lacked experience for the presidency. Though Percy was eager to be considered for the vice presidency, he killed his chances by supporting Rockefeller over Nixon for the presidential nomination. Many conservatives never forgave him and Nixon regularly disparaged him, including placing Percy on his "enemies" list.
Still, Percy’s independence proved to be a political asset. He won re-election to the Senate in 1972 by more than 1 million votes, the largest plurality of any Senate candidate in the nation that year. Almost overnight, Percy started campaigning for the 1976 presidential nomination, eventually forming an exploratory committee. But his White House dreams were shattered in 1974 by Nixon’s resignation and the decision of the new president, Gerald Ford, to seek a full term. Percy threw his support to Ford.
One of his most influential actions as senator was his recommendation in 1970 that James R. Thompson become first assistant U.S. attorney inChicago. 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 choseChicago lawyer John Paul Stevens and recommended him to the White House for the U.S. Court of Appeals bench inChicago 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.
Because of Sen. Percy's wealth, his address (which for much of his adult life was the affluent suburb of Kenilworth) and his youthful looks and smooth demeanor, he was often viewed as coming from easy street.
Yet Percy’s life was one of self-built business and political successes, mixed with personal sorrow and tragedy.
Born Sept. 27, 1919, in Pensacola, Fla., Percy and his family moved to Rogers Park when he was a baby. His father, Edward, was a cashier in the Rogers Park National Bank. But the bank failed in the Great Depression and Percy’s father spent the family’s savings and was forced into bankruptcy and on welfare.
Percy attended Sullivan High School in Rogers Park for the first two years and New Trier High School for the last two years. The family had moved to Wilmette in 1935 after the father found temporary employment.
From 1937 to 1941, he worked his way through the University of Chicago on a half-tuition scholarship. His grades were average, but he waited on tables, worked in the library and operated a variety of businesses on campus, including selling supplies to fraternity houses and residence halls.
After working at Bell & Howell during the summers, he joined the company full time in 1941 after graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 1943 he became an ensign in the Navy and married Jeanne Dickerson, whom he had met at New Trier High School. By 1947, when Percy was back with Bell & Howell, the family had three children. His wife died that year of a reaction to penicillin. In 1950, Percy married Loraine Guyer, daughter of a West Coast investment banker.
Percy began his political career in a small way, working as a Republican precinct captain in Kenilworth. In 1955 he was named finance chairman for the Republican Party in Illinois, a role he was apparently talked into by President Dwight Eisenhower.
"That began my life in politics," Percy said.
After losing his bid for governor against Kerner in 1964, Percy took on the three-term Douglas, one of his former University of Chicago professors, for the Senate in 1966. The campaign represents contrasts of age as well as Douglas’ staunch support for then-President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam.
Percy was slightly ahead in the polls when both sides' campaigns were brought to a halt abruptly.
On Sept. 18, 1966, Valerie Percy, the twin sister of daughter Sharon, was beaten and stabbed to death in her bed by an invader who got into the family’s Kenilworth estate. No arrests were ever made, although there were hundreds of investigations.
Douglas later said his decision to voluntarily stop campaigning hurt his re-election chances and the murder of Percy’s daughter dominated the news until Election Day. On that day, Percy outpolled Douglas by 422,302 votes.
In 1972, Percy gave up a coveted seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee in favor of the Foreign Relations Committee. When Republicans won the Senate in 1980, he became the committee’s chairman and basked in telling supporters and friends of the kings, presidents, and prime ministers he had met.
But his chairmanship of the powerful committee also created political risks. In his 1984 re-election bid, he was forced to fend off a conservative primary challenge from a four-term west suburban congressman. And Percy’s bid for a fourth term was frequently challenged by the criticism that he knew Paris, France, better than he knew Paris, Illinois.
In facing Simon, Percy found himself defending allegations that he held limited interest in state affairs while enjoying attention on a national stage. At the same time, the senator found himself the subject of an attack ad financed by a businessman from California unhappy with Percy's stand on Israel and other matters. The ads portrayed Percy as a chameleon, changing his colors on various issues.
After a bruising campaign, Simon defeated Percy by a narrow margin. After his loss, Percy remained in Washington where he launched his own consulting firm, Charles Percy & Associates Inc., which was involved in encouraging U.S. exports.
Today, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., noted Percy's success creating jobs at Bell & Howell and his work chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Cold War. "His brand of moderate fiscal conservatism will be missed," Kirk said in a statement.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., worked for the political campaigns of Democrats Paul Douglas and Paul Simon, who ran against Percy. Nonetheless, Durbin said in a statement, he and Percy remained friends. "That statement reflects a better moment in American politics and a man who was always viewed as honorable and honest in his representation of our state," Durbin said.
Following Valerie Percy's murder, Durbin recalled, Douglas and Percy suspended their campaigns. "In the closing days of that contest both men showed a humanity and a respect which should be recalled in this era of venomous personal attacks and wild charges," Durbin said in his statement.