Battling America's hunger

Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill., sits next to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., as he discusses the "Hunger 1973" report during a meeting of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs on Capitol Hill in 1973. Kennedy uses a head of lettuce as prop during the meeting. (AP Photo)

Charles H. Percy, a brilliant businessman who represented Illinois for nearly 20 years in the U.S. Senate, once headed the chamber’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee, and harbored unrealized ambitions to run for the presidency, died early Saturday. He was 91.

Percy died at 2:30 a.m. Eastern time at a Washington D.C. hospice, according to Kate Kelly, a spokeswoman with WETA, the public broadcasting station in Washington D.C., where Percy's daughter, Sharon Rockefeller is president and CEO.

Percy, a moderate Republican, entered the Senate in 1966 after defeating one liberal icon, the late Paul Douglas. But he was ousted by the state’s voters when they elected another Democratic icon, the late Paul Simon, in 1984.

Percy was an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, a supporter of international nuclear non-proliferation, a backer of federal consumer protection efforts and tougher enforcement of laws against drug abuse. He also was the first senator to call for a special prosecutor to investigate Watergate, the political dirty tricks scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

In March 2009, Percy’s daughter, Sharon, the wife of Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., disclosed publicly that the former senator had Alzheimer’s disease. Speaking to the National Alzheimer’s Association, she described him at that time as "still the same sweet, deeply religious man he always was, with a core presence that’s as magnetic as ever."

Percy, a Christian Scientist who neither drank alcohol nor smoked, was an avid health advocate. No day on the campaign trail began without Percy swimming laps in a hotel pool.

Percy became chief executive of Bell & Howell Corp., then a manufacturer of projectors, cameras and other motion-picture equipment, in 1949 at the age of 29, becoming the youngest person to head a major corporation at that time. He resigned in 1963 to make his first bid for major elective office, an unsuccessful run for governor against the late Democratic Gov. Otto Kerner.

But even before launching his political career, Percy was seen as a potential president of the United States by such influential admirers as former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was only 40 years old and never had held public office when Richard Nixon approached him about the vice presidency in 1960. Soon afterward, John Kennedy rated Percy one of the most promising newcomers on the political scene.

In the mid-1960s, Percy made the cover of Time magazine as heir apparent to the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party. In 1968, Percy was touted by the New York Times’ James Reston as "the hottest political article in the Republican Party." Barry Goldwater suggested that Percy could be his party’s most formidable candidate. And Nixon thought the freshman senator from Illinois was his most threatening rival for the nomination.

"Percy and Nixon are two to one" odds for the nomination, Nixon observed privately in the winter of 1967. "(Ronald) Reagan is four to one. Rocky (Nelson Rockefeller) has no chance at all."

But in a private meeting with Nixon, the Illinois senator took himself out of contention for the nomination, saying that he lacked experience for the presidency. Though Percy was eager to be considered for the vice presidency, he killed his chances by supporting Rockefeller over Nixon for the presidential nomination. Many conservatives never forgave him and Nixon regularly disparaged him, including placing Percy on his "enemies" list.

Still, Percy’s independence proved to be a political asset. He won re-election to the Senate in 1972 by more than 1 million votes, the largest plurality of any Senate candidate in the nation that year. Almost overnight, Percy started campaigning for the 1976 presidential nomination, eventually forming an exploratory committee. But his White House dreams were shattered in 1974 by Nixon’s resignation and the decision of the new president, Gerald Ford, to seek a full term. Percy threw his support to Ford.

One of his most influential actions as senator was his recommendation in 1970 that James R. Thompson become first assistant U.S. attorney inChicago. It was part of a deal which, in turn, would lead to Thompson becoming the top federal prosecutor and later the state’s longest serving governor. Other Thompson assistants were later elevated by Percy to the U.S. attorney’s office.

"He didn’t have to listen to me on a choice of a U.S. attorney or a choice of a judge," Thompson said. "But he was always willing to listen and go to bat for good people and as a result, we got good people on the district and appellate court and in the U.S. attorney’s office."

Percy also choseChicago lawyer John Paul Stevens and recommended him to the White House for the U.S. Court of Appeals bench inChicago in 1970. Stevens later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice until his retirement last year.

A moderate, Percy was disdained for much of his career by conservative Republicans nationally and in his home state. He stated throughout his political career that one of his main goals was to broaden the base of the Republican Party and to make it comfortable with diverse points of view.

Because of Sen. Percy's wealth, his address (which for much of his adult life was the affluent suburb of Kenilworth) and his youthful looks and smooth demeanor, he was often viewed as coming from easy street.

Yet Percy’s life was one of self-built business and political successes, mixed with personal sorrow and tragedy.

Born Sept. 27, 1919, in Pensacola, Fla., Percy and his family moved to Rogers Park when he was a baby. His father, Edward, was a cashier in the Rogers Park National Bank. But the bank failed in the Great Depression and Percy’s father spent the family’s savings and was forced into bankruptcy and on welfare.