Monday, September 19, 2011

Percy’s passing marks end of political era that gave us bipartisan compromise

Although I am old enough to remember the election cycles of 1982 (Illinois governor) and 1983 (Chicago mayor), the first election cycle I was old enough to cast a ballot in was the 1984 session.
Would we have been better off with Percy over Nixon in '68?

That was the one that saw Ronald Reagan win every state except Minnesota in his bid for presidential re-election. But in Illinois, there was a Democratic victory – the incumbent Republican U.S. senator got defeated in his bid for a fourth term.

IT WAS THE cycle that saw us get Paul Simon as a statewide official – serving two terms in the U.S. Senate and burning that image of the horn-rimmed glasses and those bow ties into our brains in perpetuity.

But for us to get Simon, we had to lose an equally-eloquent public official in the form of Charles Percy.

I remember the Republican partisans from Illinois who tried to scare people against voting for Simon by letting us know that the loss of Percy would result in now-former Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina moving up the ladder into a prime committee position – foreign relations.

We wouldn’t really want Jesse in control of anything that involved U.S. foreign policy. Would we?

IT DIDN’T WORK. And I don’t think many people fully appreciated just how much the deposing of Percy back in ’84 was a changing of the guard from that old era where partisan politicos who didn’t let partisanship define their very essence, to the modern day where partisan hostility is taken as so much a part of the game that the fact that Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, earlier this year actually attended an event with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, comes off as a radical, and unheard of, act.

All of this popped into my head this weekend after learning that Percy died early Saturday. For the man who represented Illinois from 1967 to early 1985 was so unlike anyone who would ever get elected in today’s era.

To put the Percy record through the brief run-through, the senator opposed U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. That alone would have modern ideologues convinced this man was some sort of hard-core liberal and unlike anyone they would ever want associated with the Party of Lincoln.

He also was a supporter of international nuclear non-proliferation and thought that consumer protection laws were a good thing. The modern-day ideologues would claim that he was meddling in foreign affairs and was supportive of over-reaching laws that meddled with the interests of small business.

PERCY ALSO WAS among the first members of Congress who went against the fact that then-President Richard Nixon was his partisan ally, in calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the whole Watergate mess – rather than just sweep it under the rug the way the Nixonians tried to do throughout 1972 and ’73.

When modern-day Republicans talk of Richard Nixon, they idolize him to the point where the man with the symbolic perpetual 5 o’clock shadow becomes “bigger than Jesus.” They also trash anyone who does not remember Nixon fondly as being the source of the problem.

I’m sure there are some modern-day GOP partisans who view Percy’s record, and take into account the fact that Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., felt the need to give Percy a favorable statement in the obituaries that were published in newspapers this weekend and will write him off as some sort of liberal loon – if not a “closet Democrat.”

He wasn’t, really.

IT’S JUST THAT Percy is the sort of official who has long been chased out of the Republican Party. They’re the ones who would claim that someone who is willing to view compromise and bipartisanship as elements worth striving for is really someone who won’t stand up for his own principles – as well as the principles of those people who elected him to public office.

Percy is of the sort who likely could no longer get elected as a Republican, which is a shame. And while it is true that there has been a shift to more rigid ideological types in both major political parties, it also factors that much of the shift came about due to those hard-core ideologues who may once have been Democrats but shifted to the GOP back in the era of civil rights battles – thereby bumping the more moderate types.

So thinking back to that first election cycle I cast my ballot in, yes I do think it was a good thing that Paul Simon got to move up to a position of statewide significance (rather than just being the member of Congress from the state’s southern tip).

But looking back at the cycle, I can’t help but wish that it had not had to come down to a Percy/Simon battle. No knock against Alan Dixon, but our state (and perhaps our nation) would have been better off if we could have had a Percy/Simon pairing as Illinois’ two state senators.

AND INSOFAR AS as the death of Percy at a hospice in the District of Columbia, a part of me wants to use the occasion to mourn the death of bipartisanship.

It may get knocked now as a corrupt era of smoke-filled rooms, but in the political old days the “D’s” and the “R’s” would haggle by daylight, then work out the compromise after dark over drinks – leaving us better off then than we were now.


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