Charles Percy: Politician hailed early in his career as the Republicans' answer to John F Kennedy


Today, Charles Percy's moderate politics and his readiness to work across the aisle with Democrats would consign him to the Republican Party's outer darkness. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, however, those views chimed with the liberal mood of the era, and many thought the young Senator from Illinois was destined for the Oval Office.

His background was picture-perfect. The son of a bank clerk, he won a scholarship to the University of Chicago and served in the Navy in the Second World War. He entered politics on the back of a dazzling business career at Bell & Howell, a photographic equipment company which he joined in 1941. By 1949 Percy had become chief executive; during his 14 years at the helm, sales multiplied 12-fold to $160m.

But by 1960 his political ambitions – encouraged by, among others, the outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower – were evident. That year Percy was given the important post of chairman of the platform committee of the Republican convention in Chicago that nominated then vice-president Richard Nixon. After an unsuccessful run for the Illinois governorship , Percy was elected to the Senate in 1966, gaining a surprise win over a respected Democratic incumbent.

His campaign, however, was overshadowed by tragedy – the savage and mysterious murder of his 21-year old daughter Valerie at the family home in Chicago's northern suburbs. The police kept the case open for two decades, but it was never solved.

In Washington Percy made an instant impact. His youth, energy and good looks had many hailing him as the Republican answer to John F Kennedy, and he quickly carved out a niche as a leading "Rockefeller Republican", on the moderate wing of the party led by Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor. By late 1967, when Percy had been a senator for less than 12 months, one poll showed him beating the incumbent Lyndon Johnson in a putative match-up.

Percy, though, decided to pass on 1968 and set his sights on 1976, but the premature downfall of Nixon – whom Percy had enraged by calling for an independent prosecutor over Watergate – upset his plans. In August 1974 Gerald Ford was elevated to the presidency, and once Ford had made it clear he would seek election in his own right, Percy abandoned his campaign, and the window of opportunity slammed shut. Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter and the Republicans moved rightward to embrace Ronald Reagan.

Percy's ascent on Capitol Hill none the less continued and in 1981 he became chairman of the Senate's powerful Foreign Relations Committee. Three years later his political career was over after a defeat in his bid for a fourth senate term whose implications for US politics linger to this day.

By any standards 1984 was a vintage Republican year. A hugely popular Reagan won re-election by a landslide, and the party picked up 16 seats in the House. But even though Reagan came out in person to campaign for him, Percy was narrowly beaten in Illinois by his opponent, the Democratic congressman Paul Simon.

Many simply put the loss down to voters' disaffection with an increasingly remote figure, focussed on international affairs and oblivious to the problems of the struggling Illinois economy. For others, though, the surprise result remains Exhibit A in the case that the pro-Israel lobby in the US wields such political influence that even the mightiest member of Congress falls foul of it at his peril.

Percy's sins on this score were manifold. He had criticised Israel for missing opportunities to negotiate with the Palestinians, he had described Yasser Arafat as a "relative moderate", and had twice voted for controversial sales of US arms to Saudi Arabia, opposed by both Israel and AIPAC, the main Israel lobbying group in Washington.

Large sums from Jewish groups and pro-Israeli interests flowed into the coffers first of Tom Corcoran, Percy's Republican opponent in the primary ("Can You Name Israel's Worst Adversary in Congress?" read one Corcoran flier) and then of Simon in the general election. Whether this effort made the difference, it is impossible to say. But AIPAC certainly thought so. "All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to defeat Percy, and American politicians – those who hold public positions now and those who aspire – got the message," Tom Dine, the group's president, said in a speech afterwards. Congress's lockstep and virtually unanimous support of Israel since suggests he may have had a point.

Rupert Cornwell

Charles Harting Percy, politician: born Pensacola, Florida 27 September 1919; married 1943 Jeanne Dickerson (died 1947; one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased), 1951 Loraine Diane Guyer (one son, one daughter); died Washington DC 17 September 2011.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions