CHICAGO — Former Sen. Charles H. Percy, a former Foreign Relations Committee chairman whose moderate Republican views put him at odds with party conservatives, died Saturday in Washington. He was 91.
Percy’s daughter, Sharon Rockefeller, announced in March 2009 that he had Alzheimer’s disease. His death was announced by the office of his son-in-law, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller.
Elected to the first of his three Senate terms in 1966, Percy was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. He was helped by handsome looks, a rich baritone voice and the relaxed self-confidence of the successful business executive he once was.
But the silver-haired senator came to power when moderate Republicans were becoming unfashionable on Capitol Hill. He ended up backing former President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 rather than go for it himself.
After that his chances seemed to fade. He won one more term in 1978 but was narrowly defeated for re-election in 1984 by Democratic Rep. Paul Simon.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, praised his father-in-law’s even-handed political stances in a statement sent Saturday.
“His insistence on a balanced perspective in his public life, (calling himself “fervently moderate”), helped us understand it is both possible and preferable to live in a world without partisanship,” he said.
Former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, who Percy backed for U.S. attorney in Chicago, said the late senator was “a classic example of what a public official should be.”
“While he was unquestionably a Republican party member and promoter, he was a man who could work with Democrats and independents, as well, who wanted only the best for his state and his country,” Thompson said Saturday. Percy “avoided the personal polarizing politics that seems to infest us at every level today.”
Percy’s differences with conservative Republicans showed early on as he clashed with Nixon, opposing two successive U.S. Supreme Court nominees — Clement F. Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell.
But the engineer of a spectacular turnaround at camera maker Bell & Howell Co. was an apostle of free markets who sought to ease federal regulation of America’s corporations. Percy often said that like Dwight D. Eisenhower he was “a conservative on money issues but a liberal on people issues.”
He also opposed excessive partisanship, particularly as Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
“I don’t want foreign policy developed just by one party and ride roughshod over the other party,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1984. “I’d much more value a bill that has bipartisan support. That’s what this committee achieved in World War II, achieved in the Marshall Plan.”
In a statement, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said Percy’s “brand of moderate fiscal conservatism will be missed.”
Percy ran for governor in 1964 but lost to Democratic incumbent Otto Kerner in an election year marked by a Democratic landslide.
Two years later, he unseated Democratic Sen. Paul Douglas, a classic New Deal liberal who had been one of his economics professors at the University of Chicago in the 1930s.
A tragedy occurred in mid-campaign. One of Percy’s 21-year-old twin daughters, Valerie, was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in her bed in the family’s lakefront home in suburban Kenilworth. Both candidates suspended campaigning for two weeks. No one has ever been charged in the case.
U.S. Dick Durbin said Saturday he was with Douglas when he learned of Valerie Percy’s death and that in the campaign’s closing days, both candidates “showed a humanity and a respect which should be recalled in this era of venomous personal attacks and wild charges.”
The surviving twin, Sharon Rockefeller, is president and chief executive of WETA,the public broadcasting station in Washington. Percy also had a son, Roger, with his first wife, Jeanne Dickerson, who died in 1947. He married Loraine Guyer in 1950, and they had a daughter, Gail, and son, Mark.
Percy was elected when Illinois was a swing state where he could get votes from some Democrats and liberals. Early in his career he had support from the United Auto Workers and always addressed the Illinois AFL-CIO labor union federation at campaign time.
But the state gradually became more Democratic.
In 1978, Percy was able to dig out from a deficit in the polls with only weeks until Election Day, going on TV with ads in which he looked into the camera and said: “I got the message.” He barely squeaked in.
Six years later he was defeated as some party conservatives deserted him, the liberal Simon highlighted his ties to President Ronald Reagan, and pro-Israel groups incensed by Percy’s support of selling AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia poured contributions into Simon’s campaign.
After his defeat, Percy remained in Washington, where he opened a consulting business, giving advice to clients on foreign policy issues.
Percy was born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1919, but his family moved to Chicago when he was still very young. The family was poor for a time and the young Percy got after-school jobs to help out.
Percy’s energy caught the eye of his Sunday school teacher, Joseph McNabb, chairman of Bell & Howell, where Percy went to work after graduating in 1941 from the University of Chicago.
Percy served in the Navy for three years in World War II and returned to Bell & Howell in 1945, where he quickly became a board member and was named chairman on McNabb’s death in 1949.
Before he was through, earnings were 32 times what they had been when Percy took over, the number of employees had increased 12-fold and Bell & Howell had gone public with shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
His family plans a private memorial service and asked that memorial contributions be made to The Friends of Georgetown Waterfront Park.