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.