Charles Percy, 1919–2011

The GOP senator who stood for moderation

Charles Percy appeared on the cover of Time in 1964, two years before he even ran for the Senate. The handsome, successful businessman with a rags-to-riches story was already being touted as the heir apparent to the liberal wing of the Republican Party; Dwight D. Eisenhower was convinced he would be president. According to Time’s profile, a political adviser had to caution the future senator from appearing “too good to be true.” “Well,” Percy said, “that’s my imperfection.”

Growing up in Chicago, Percy watched his father, a bank cashier, lose his job and life savings after the stock market crash of 1929, said the Chicago Sun-Times. Forced to work, Percy showed an entrepreneurial streak at a young age. He found a mentor in his Sunday school teacher, Joseph McNabb; then the president of camera manufacturer Bell & Howell, McNabb offered him an internship. After graduating from the University of Chicago and serving in the Navy during World War II, Percy rejoined Bell & Howell, where he was named CEO at age 29, the youngest person to ever run a major U.S. company at the time.

In 1966, Percy won the U.S. Senate seat he would hold for 18 years, but his victory was marred by “personal sorrow and tragedy,” said the Chicago Tribune. Two months before the election, his 21-year-old daughter Valerie was bludgeoned to death in the family’s home. No arrests were ever made. In Washington, the “wonder boy from Illinois” earned a reputation as a moderate, supporting legislation to build more low-income housing and becoming an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. It was he who proposed an independent prosecutor to investigate the Watergate scandal.

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Percy briefly considered a run for the White House in the early 1970s, but backed off when Gerald Ford indicated that he would run in 1976, said The New York Times. Percy was narrowly defeated for a fourth Senate term by Democrat Paul Simon in 1984. After that loss he launched a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He called himself “fervently moderate,” said his son-in-law, Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, and always sought “a balanced perspective in his public life.”

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