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 year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
David Silva strokes home his and City's second goal
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
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: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas