Remembering Senator Chuck Percy (1919-2011)

Senator Chuck Percy in 1975.

Senator Charles H. Percy (R.-Illinois, 1919-2011)  died this weekend in Washington, D.C. at 91 years old.  It is a sad day.  Chuck Percy was a first rate senator of a type we sorely need today: smart, moderate, with backbone enough to stick to principles but principled enough to reach across to aisle.  

Me as a staff legal intern with Senator Percy, circa 1975.

For me personally, Chuck Percy was the first political figure I ever worked for in Washington, starting as a law school intern in 1975 and joining his team formally after getting my degree in 1976.  As a very junior staffer on the Governmental Affairs Committee, where Percy was the ranking Republican, I enjoyed a ringside seat to some of the most interesting politics of the day and saw a true role model of effective bipartisanship.  Percy himself showed me how a Senator (or any good leader) should act: demanding and exacting, but calm, dignified, articulate, informed, and skillful.


A business prodigy – Percy become president of camera giant Bell and Howell at 29 years old before defeating Democrat Paul Douglas for his Illinois senate seat in 1966 — Percy at first unabashedly called himself a “liberal Republican.”  That species is largely extinct today, but back in the 1970s it included some of the most accomplished: New York’s Jacob Javits, Maryland’s Charles Mathias, Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker, Oregon’s Mark Hatfield, among others. 



The U.S. Senate was a very different place in the 1970s.  My friend and colleague from those years Ira Shapiro, who served as counsel to Senator Tom Eagleton (D-Missouri) and other Democrats back then — has written a new book about that era soon to be released called The Last Great Senate, a time when members routinely crossed party lines and risked controversy to solve national problems.  Percy fit that mold.  
  


On the liberal side, Percy challenged the Vietnam War as early as 1967, clashed with President Richard M. Nixon over Watergate in 1973, and railed against corruption in Chicago’s political machine under then-mayor Richard J. Daley.  He supported federal handgun control (his 21-year old daughter Valerie had been murdered in 1966 in their home, apparently by an intruder, a crime that was never solved).  He pushed a plan to focus gun controls on urban areas like Chicago that needed it while leaving rural areas like southern Illinois unaffected.  I still remember my own horror at first seeing leaflets circulated by the National Rifle Association that year showing Percy’s face with a target bull’s eye over it.     


Senator Abe Ribicoff in the mid-1970s.

But most important to me was what I learned from Senator Percy about partnerships.  The Governmental Affairs Committee, where I worked my entire time under the Senator in the 1970s, was largely run by a troika of senior members (sometimes to the consternation of other Senators): Percy teaming with the committee’s chairman, Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conneticut), and Javits.  Only the rarest issue divided the committee along party lines.  On most everything else, Ribicoff and Percy always insisted on finding ways to “work it out.”  Often, on reaching a legislative impasse, they’d simply instruct the two staffs, majority and minority, not to fight, but rather to go off and come back with an answer.  




As a result,  the Governmental Affairs Committee was remarkably productive during those years — passing bills to create the Energy and Education Departments, the post-Watergate ethics reforms, the Congressional budget process, the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act (my own first big project), and many others.  



Friendships among the staffs, Republican and Democrat, were common and long lasting.  




The most partisan moment I recall was the Committee’s 1977 investigation of T. Bertram Lance, President Jimmy Carter’s close friend and director of OMB who in 1977 was accused of irregularities while running the National Bank of Georgia.  Percy and Ribicoff both called for Lance’s resignation — a particularly tough stance for Ribicoff who had to defy his own party’s President.  The controversy came to a head in high-profile public hearings that were broadcast gavel-to-gavel and coast-to coast — this too a rarity back in the 1970s before the advent of C-SPAN.  


The Bert Lance hearings became very bitter, with most Democrats strongly backing Lance on behalf of the Carter White House.  As a young staff lawyer, I was struck by the sudden hostility in our previously cozy little committee group, the heavy media focus, and the fact that we actually received anonymous death threats.  I remember one particular point when White House press secretary Jody Powell publicly accused Senator Percy — apparently without checking his facts — of taking an illegal campaign contribution in the form of free travel on a corporate airplane.  Fortunately, within hours, Percy produced a cancelled check proving the charge false.


Despite enormous pressure, Ribicoff and Percy never wavered in their joint demand that Lance resign.  They had each other’s backs.  Lance resigned from OMB in September 1977 shortly after the hearings.  

Percy campaign poster from 1978.

Senator Percy changed his views on economic issues in 1978 when he faced an unexpectedly strong re-election challenge from Chicago Democrat Alex Seith.  This too was my own first close-up exposure to Chicago politics; I traveled there to work on the campaign in its final days.  Seith took a wide lead in polls just before the November vote, prompting Percy to issue one of the most famous political advertisements of that era — the “I got the message” ad.  (Click here to see it on YouTube.)  He eked out a narrow win. 

I left Senator Percy’s staff in 1981 to take a job in the Reagan administration at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the regulatory body that oversees financial derivatives markets.  (I would not formally switch to Democrats until the mid-1980s.)  Percy would lose his Senate seat in 1984 to Democrat Paul Simon, and after that would stay in Washington focusing on his Alliance to Save Energy and other projects, though largely outside the public eye.  In recent years, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.


I remember my years on Senator Percy’s staff as exciting, challenging, and fascinating.  I still keep in touch with many friends from back then.  Today, as we bemoan the crippling partisanship that literally has paralyzed Washington, we could well use a few more types on Capitol Hill like Chuck Percy and Abe Ribicoff — people who combined the strength, confidence, and skill to know how and when to “work things out” to benefit the country.      


My sincere condolences go out to Senator Percy’s family and close friends on this sad occasion.   

12 thoughts on “Remembering Senator Chuck Percy (1919-2011)

  1. Ken: What a marvelous tribute to a wonderfu. Senator and human being. I warmly recall many occasions when I had the privilege to work with Senator Percy. First on the Privacy Act where Senator Percy was an original cosponsor with Senator Sam Ervin and my boss, Senator Edmund S. Muskie. That same year we worked with him on the key amendments to the Freedom of Information Act. On Nov. 21, 1974, Senator Percy cast a crucial deciding vote to override the veto of the amendments by President Ford. Without his vote the amendments would not have become law. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has described that veto override as one of the most serious erosions of executive authority adopted by the Congress. A primary reason for President Ford's veto – it gave the federal courts the authority to question and hold an in camera hearing on the question of whether a document was properly classified – a critical question then when the Nixon administration hid behind claims of executive privilege and used the classification system to cover their tracks. It remains critical today, but needs revitalization to avoid allowing security to trump liberty. Years later, during his retirement, I encountered Senator Percy playing tennis next to me and went up to visit after our games were concluded. It was as if no time had passed and we were recalling a very special time in our history – and a particularly special time on the Committee on Governmental Affairs. A day later I received a call from the Senator asking me to speak on privacy at a roundtable conducted by a friend of his who was a Washington columnist. Senator Percy was one of the most thoughtful, considerate and effective Senators I had the privilege to know and work for.

  2. Thanks Ken for a great tribute to Senator Percy. You and I both worked for Percy on the Governmental Affairs Committee in the 70s. I remember Senator Percy as you do. We could sure use him in the Senate today. As his campaign slogan stated, I was "Proudly for Percy."

  3. Every February, Berkeley Univeristy's Institute of Governmental Studies awards the Charles H. Percy grants to 4-5 undergraduates studying government's impact on a broad range of social and economic issues: an effort to further his legacy and his belief in government's responsibilities to our democracy. Today, more than ever, we need more leaders like Senator Charles H. Percy

  4. Generations of young men and women had the honor of working for and learning from Senator Percy. Many waves of people went through. Some of us in one generation do not know those in other generations. But, we share a common experience.
    My own journey began when I was a senior at Georgetown University in 1969. I saw him on TV debating the ABM treaty with former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. I wrote him offering to work for him for free. Days later, I was alphabetizing carbon copies of letters to constituents. My first day was his 50th birthday, and he had gotten an Executive Sandbox as a present. At the staff party, I shook his hand for the first time. I don’t recall much about that event, other than the sandbox, and an incredibly powerful grip.
    I worked for Senator Percy till the summer of 1975.I staffed issues that were assigned to the Judiciary Committee. When the first letter arrived concerning the Watergate break-in, Tom Heyerdahl in the mailroom sent the letter to me. From then on, I had Watergate. That led to the Percy–Baker legislation establishing the office of Special Prosecutor appointed by the Executive Branch, not the Judicial Branch, and thus, we felt, on sounder Constitutional grounds. I was called into the Senator’s office one day, when I was about a year out of law school. He was on the speaker phone with Yale Law School Professor Alexander Bickel, in his day a legal luminary of exalted reputation. Without introduction, the Senator said to me, “Bill, I have Alex Bickel on the phone and we have been talking about the issue of whether a special prosecutor should be appointed by the courts. He disagrees with your position. Can you tell him why he is wrong?” That was an interesting conversation. He once told me to set up a meeting with Justice Blackmun and some constituents who disagreed with the Supreme Court’s abortion decision in Roe v. Wade. That did not happen.
    One night towards the end of a long Senate floor debate on the death penalty I asked the Senator how he intended to vote. I needed to prepare his floor statement. He discussed the points made in the debate. And then he said, “If I knew who murdered my daughter, I couldn’t sentence that person to death. If I couldn’t do it in that case, how can I morally justify voting for this bill?” That settled the issue.
    As we all recall, he had a bit of a hearing problem. He was a bit sensitive about it, but once he finally put in a hearing aid, he, typically, became an advocate of people with hearing problems. We were in a noisy reception with a lot of people and he was going on at some length to a gentleman about what a fantastic hearing aid he now had, how he could hear everything perfectly and never missed a word. The gentleman was obviously impressed and asked him, “What kind is it?” The Senator looked at his watch and said, “Ten thirty.”
    When my grandmother, who was then about 90 years old, came to visit me in 1974when our son was born, I arranged for her to meet Senator Percy for a handshake and photograph just off the Senate floor. I don’t think she had ever been as impressed as when she had that “personal time” with Senator Percy and later getting a photograph of the meeting that he had inscribed to “Gram” and signed, “Chuck Percy.” I still have that picture.
    That is just one of the ways that he impacted but one life. Yet, it was his nature and his force of personality that had such a profound impact on me as a young man. He set a solid and worthy example of what it means to be a principled man, a leader, a humble man and a man of faith who loved his country. I was privileged to know him and learn from him at an early stage of my career, and I am part of a very large group of people – many of whom I do not know – who either preceded me or followed me as Percy staffers. We all share an experience that we can be proud of and look back on with such fond memories. He was truly a great man.

  5. It is hard to convey (to outsiders) what a rich, rollicking time it was, working for CHP and the Governmental Affairs Committee in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Could it be that we really had a boss who cared not a whit about party labels — who only wanted hard-working young staff members who were smart, able and eager to work hard, and dedicated to principles? Could it be that we really had a boss who gave us, in our early 20s, the chance to ask questions in Senate hearings? The chance to write and lobby for the passage of substantive, important national legislation? The chance to represent his office in meetings with constituents, lobbyists, senior Senators and White House officials on matters of national import?

    It's a bit hard to dissect all the ingredients that made PSI and my other Governmental Affairs subcommittee (Energy, Nuclear Proliferation & Federal Services) so special. The collegiality, camarederie and humor shared with my friends on these committees, and the Senator's personal staff, was no small part of the mix. But Charles Percy's own personal role — his interest in our opinions, his integrity, his human-ness — cannot be ignored. To this day, I have not held a job where my opinions were valued any more highly by my management than Charles Percy valued my opinions 3 decades ago. True, this confession may say as much about my opinions as it does about the Senator, but I'm confident I'm not alone in that appraisal.
    Senator Percy's decency did not stop at the office steps. Many of us can remember other occasions — the cook-out at Bill Strauss's home, for example — where his commitment to his staff stood out. I personally will always treasure one afternoon when I greeted Senator Percy on an airplane heading to Washington from Chicago, two or three years after I left my job with him. He had a window seat; the middle seat was free; and he warmly (WARMLY) urged me to join him for an extensive update on my life and his work. Our conversation continued in National Airport, while we wait for our bags and until we left one another at the edge of the curb. He didn't have to do that — he simply cared.

    This reverie gets me kind of choked up, so for now I'll stop. Suffice to say that I will always treasure my special opportunity to have known and worked with Charles Percy. He gave me the chance to meet several of the very best friends I have in this world, and 2.5 of the best years of my professional life. I hope this weekend's tributes to his life are read by at least a few current members of Congress, who believe that politics, and the politics of personal destruction, are one and the same. Senator Percy's legacy offers important lessons for what a vital democracy can and should be. If only we can pay attention.

    Thank you, Senator Percy, and thank you, Ken, for giving us the chance to express our feelings about this decent, good man. Josh Levin

  6. Ken: So enjoyed reading these tributes. All well stated. Let me just add. I worked for Senator Percy in his last term. He gave me my start in Washington. I owe him so much. He was a PRINCE of a man…incapable of holding a grudge….and always believed that you win by being the bigger person. A terrific role model. His love of family knew no bounds. I enjoyed every day of our time together. Galen Reser

  7. Sen. Chuck Percy exemplified the very best in American politics. I felt extremely fortunate to work with him and many of the other "greats" who served in the U.S. Senate during the 1970's. He was a wonderful human being, who cared deeply about doing the very best he could for his fellow citizens, especially for those who were less fortunate than he was. I realized then — but I realize even more now — just how lucky we were, on the majority side of the aisle, to have someone like Sen. Percy to work with. He and Abe Ribicoff, who chaired the Governmental Affairs Committee, did not necessarily agree on every single issue, but the matters they agreed upon vastly outnumbered those where they disagreed, and at the end of the day we always managed to reach a sensible result that both Democrats and Republicans on the committee could support. In the 1977-1978 Congress alone, our committee produced more than 50 pieces of legislation that passed the Senate, passed the House, and were signed into law by the President — quite a record that I imagine has not very often been equalled.

    Here's just one example of how Sen. Percy put the public interest ahead of his own interest. After the Watergate scandal, the committee was asked to handle the post-Watergate reform bill. One provision of that legislation required members of Congress to disclose their financial interests. The legislation clearly made Sen. Percy (and I'm sure, some other Senators) quite uncomfortable. I recall Sen. Percy asked why this intrusion into his private affairs was necessary, but at no time did he object to the bill, or try to do anything to undermine it. At the end of the day, despite his misgivings, he became a strong and key supporter of the Ethics in Government Act, a landmark piece of legislation that helped to restore confidence in government during the post-Watergate period.

    Sen. Chuck Percy was an outstanding U.S. Senator, and it was a great privilege for me to have had the chance to work with him.

  8. Ken: Much thanks for allowing us to share our memories of the Senator.

    I first met him during his 1964 campaign for Governor of Illinois at the Howard Street "L" stop in Chicago. I was returning from class at the University of Illinois-Chicago campus when he shook my hand while boarding a CTA bus home.

    I never dreamed 11 years later, I would be moving to Washington to work for him on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. We got off to a good start when he told his brother's first name was also Howard.

    Thanks to his support, I was able to develop initiatives to help Illinois. My ideas were not only accepted by the Senator, but he threw his full political weight behind them.

    His concern for Illinois was genuine. I was always amazed about his knowledge of Chicago. He even attended Sullivan Elementary School in Chicago which later was to become Sullivan High
    School, where I was a student.

    At the top of the list of legislation we worked on was Airline Deregulation legislation of 1978–a major issue in the aviation crossroads of America. His support for the legislation was crucial became he became first Republican Senator to reach across the aisle to support an idea spawned by Sen. Ted Kennedy and supported by the Carter Administration. He personally brought Chicago-based United Airlines along which was decisive in passing this landmark legislation.

    He joined with the first Mayor Daley and Rep. John Fary in saving Chicago's Midway Airport from being bulldozed. He held a hearing right in the terminal building and later annouced the launching of Midway Airlines in his office.

    Today, Midway is home to a modern $780 million terminal, the Orange L line from downtown and is the busiest city for Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest and most profitable domestic carrier.

    He also fought hard for Illinois agricultural interests. This ranged from reviving the Long-Term Grain Agreement with the former Soviet Union to fighting European Union agricultural protectionism

    He particularly championed fuel ethanol as a way of providing new markets for Illinois corn growers while displacing imported petroleum. He convinced Sen. Bob Dole to increase the federal highway excise tax exemption Gasohol (10 percent ethanol blends).

    He also endorsed and led a tractorcade of alcohol-fueled vehicles at the Illinois State Fair and the flight of an alcohol-fueled prop airplane.

    Senator Percy possesed great patience. We arranged for him to drive a Brazilian-manufactured pure alcohol car from his Georgetown home to Dirksen. Because Brazilian cars are not designed to start in temperatures under 40 degree, the car wouldn't start because it was a cold morning. After about 10 minutes of trying, the car finally fired up and the Senator drove the car to the Dirksen garage. He was late for work but never criticized me for not anticipating the cold start problem.

    Today, U.S. ethanol production equals oil imports from Saudi Arabia, employs thousands in well-paying jobs, and has increased farm income in Illinois and elsewhere.

    Like Ken, I have kept copies of thank you notes from the Senator. My fondest memory, however, was when he called me to congratulate me on the birth of my son, Josh, now 32. Senator Charles Harting Percy was a caring human being and role model. I will always treasure the ten years I worked for him.

    Howard Marks

    .

  9. Ken…
    Percy was poetry in his time. THank you.
    I first came to Washington the summer of 1967 after my junior year in college. I knocked on the Senator's door and offered to work for the summer. Mike Brewer came to speak to me and as I remember, I was sitting at a desk almost immediately. I fell in love with Politics and Capitol Hill and the Senator that summer. It was the summer in which Percy's lower income housing legislation (235) was the focus of talk, debate and time among the staff.

    After graduating from college, I returned as a staff member…Scott and Marty and Donna and ALison and on and on.
    I also played second base for the team! I think I was hired for my baseball skills! We were a winning team.

    I ultimately ended up in the television news world but it all started in that office. I keep trying to remember the number of the room…1212???

  10. Ken- When I heard the news of Senator Percy's passing I couldn't remember who it was I knew who had worked for him. Now that mystery is solved. I really enjoyed your tribute as well as those of your blog followers. With the prospect of another government shutdown looming, it's another reminder of why we need more Percy types in office.

  11. As this is a history site, I feel constrained to mention that when you write "He supported federal handgun control (his 21-year old daughter Valerie had been murdered in 1966 in their home, apparently by an intruder, a crime that was never solved)", you leave a distinctly false impression. Senator Percy's daughter was beaten to death in her own room. It is therefore possible that if she had possessed a gun her life might have been saved. The reason for Senator Percy's attachment to gun control therefore must lie elsewhere.

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