Percy on a perch

Throughout his public life, Charles Percy has somehow always seemed to have more than his share of supporters who felt he could do nothing wrong -- and of detractors who were implacably opposed to him.

Percy was very early on the darling of the younger, more liberal Republicans in Illinois. At the same time he incurred the intense dislike of hard-core conservative members of the party. And the Chicago Tribune of that day -- particularly influential then in GOP circles -- could never accept the fact that Percy did not come up from the franks and, more than that, did not bow and scrape and ask its permission to seek high office.

Percy from the beginnings of his career has been one of the few GOP public figures who would walk through the inner big cities. He was (and is) very much accepted by the blacks and other minorities. They have always, since Percy threw his support behind civil-rights programs (such as the move for an Illinois fair-employment law) in the early 1950s, seen him as someone who really cared about them.

But Percy's early Liberalism irritated a lot of Republicans. They didn't like to see this boy-wonder business executive hobnobbing with the minorities. Some said he was a traitor to his "class." Others, forgetting Lincoln, said he was letting the party down.

From the beginning,too, Percy had influential friends. Eisenhower thought highly of Percy, still then at Bell & Howell, and would call him in for advice on presidential economic programs.In the mid-'50s, Eisenhower appointed Percy to head his prestigious Commission on National Goals. And as Ike's presidential term neared its end in 1956, he always mentioned Percy's name when asked to give a short list of Republicans he thought were qualified to succeed him in the White House.

Vice-President Nixon was another booster, of Percy in those days. Later the two had their differences. Percy was more of a Rockefeller type of Republican. Therefore the Percy-Nixon split was inevitable.

Not many new senators, at the time they arrive here, are seriously considered for the presidency. But young Chuck Percy, when he hit this city in 1966, was what the advertising people call a "hot commodity." His face was seen everywhere -- in newspapers, magazines, TV news panel shows. In many ways Percy was (from the news media point of view) the Republicans' answer to the Kennedys. He was the GOP glamour boy -- handsome, intelligent, dynamic.

With the years Percy's star declined. He worked hard in Senate committees, particularly banking and foreign relations.But he was never accepted within the Senate "club," which was dominated by the veterans, most of them conservatives. And he lost some of his boyish appeal as the years went by.

In his first run for reelection, in 1972, Percy did better than Nixon in Illinois, picking up impressive voter support. But in 1978 he discovered that the people of Illinois felt he was out of tune with them. Thus, in the waning stages of the campaign, he went to the voters and in effect apologized, saying he would listen more and try to do better.

This move, which some politicians would have considered demeaning, enabled Percy to put together a convincing victory. But the senator came back to Washington quite a bit diminished in the eyes of the press and his colleagues.

Then suddenly Percy was on top of the heap again. Javit's defeat and the GOP takeover of the Senate catapulted him into consideration for the prestigious position of head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And now, even before Reagan has taken office, Percy has been an important emissary between the United States and the Soviet leaders, conveying Brezhnev's interest in working out a SALT pact. So Percy is riding high again. His has been a fascinating career. Could it be that, if the opportunity arises within the next decade, he just might feel he is now positioned to make a last-hurrah try for the presidency?

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