Saturday, September 17, 2011

Charles Percy and the Old GOP

Death is unavoidable. What is uncertain is when each of us will die.

Sometimes, given the way an individual lived his or her life, the timing of death may be seen as ironic. So it is, I think, with the death of Charles Percy, a former Republican senator from Illinois.

If you are too young to remember Percy, you may be inclined to think, when I say that he was a Republican, that he was a Tea Party type, like Michele Bachmann and some other prominent Republicans from the Midwest. But, in fact, Percy was a liberal Republican (aka a Rockefeller Republican) in the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller and Teddy Roosevelt.

(Percy was a Rockefeller Republican who actually supported Rockefeller. He backed Rocky's unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1968.)

It's important to understand that, within the Republican Party, liberal really meant left of center in Rockefeller's and Roosevelt's days — not extreme left. Rockefeller Republicans opposed communism, promoted American business interests in foreign markets, advocated a strong defense, rejected socialism and redistribution of wealth, just like the other members of their party, but they supported regulatory measures that nearly all 21st–century Republicans simply would never tolerate, and they were advocates of things like federal funding for environmental protection, health care and higher education.

Actually, many Republicans in those days — but especially the Rockefeller Republicans — were progressive on social issues like civil rights, even moreso than their Democratic counterparts, many of whom held office in the South (and would be more comfortable in today's Republican Party than the Democrat).

Without a doubt, that was part of the legacy of the party's first nationally elected president, Abraham Lincoln, and the posture it had taken against slavery.

There was a time in fairly recent American history when the Rockefeller Republicans wielded considerable influence within their party. Their preference didn't always win the presidential nomination, but he was usually competitive if he wasn't successful.

Things really began to shift, I suppose, when Dwight Eisenhower was nominated for president and spoke of "modern Republicanism," which meant a movement toward the center. And, although they nominated essentially political moderates like Richard Nixon (who created the Environmental Protection Agency) and Gerald Ford (who actually chose Rockefeller to be his vice president — much to the dismay, I might add, of the Republicans of that time) in the 1960s and 1970s, Republicans continued to move to the right, nominating Ronald Reagan twice, the two Bushes twice each and Bob Dole once.

In 2008, of course, many Republicans complained that their standard bearer, John McCain, was not a true conservative — but he was much more conservative than many of the Republicans who were on the political scene half a century earlier.

Percy came along at the back end of the Rockefeller Republican era, I suppose. He was something of a wunderkind — president of Bell & Howell before the age of 30, elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 47.

He was encouraged to enter politics by Eisenhower and narrowly lost his first bid for office when he ran against Illinois' incumbent governor in 1964. A political novice, Percy found that he had to make certain compromises if he hoped to be successful and hesitantly endorsed the Republican standard bearer of that year, Barry Goldwater.

The next election year, 1966, was, by historical standards, clearly a Republican year, and, although Percy faced another incumbent when he ran for the Senate, he won. Perhaps the lessons he had learned in '64 paid off; perhaps he just benefited, as many Republicans did, from a backlash against Democrats. But he was re–elected in 1972 and 1978, losing his bid for a fourth term in 1984 even though a Republican president was re–elected in a landslide.

Today, you simply don't hear someone called a liberal Republican. Even those who would have qualified — albeit barely — as liberal Republicans in Percy's day won't admit to it. They prefer to be called moderate Republicans — but, even under that banner, many find themselves on the defensive against the more extreme factions of their party.

They are a vanishing breed although you do still find some in places where they once thrived — primarily in New England, the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast. As the modern Republican Party swung farther to the right, though, most of the Rockefeller Republicans became Democrats or independents.

Which brings me to the ironic aspect of Percy's death.

The fact that he died today at the age of 91 could hardly be considered surprising, but I do find the timing of his death to be, as I say, ironic. No other word seems appropriate to me.

You see, yesterday was the 35th anniversary of Rockefeller's one–finger salute to hecklers at a campaign stop in Binghamton, N.Y.

(And today, as I observed earlier, is the 15th anniversary of the death of Spiro Agnew, Nixon's first vice president.

(In an unrelated irony, tomorrow will be the 45th anniversary of the still–unsolved murder of one of Percy's daughters.)

In a way, I guess, that gesture foreshadowed the growing antagonism and, ultimately, truly unavoidable split between the conservatives and the Rockefeller Republicans.

Someone had to go. That tent just wasn't big enough for both of them, and, in hindsight, Rockefeller's gesture can be seen as a rather eloquent message to those who had seized the controls.

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