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September 20, 2011

“Chuck” Percy Took His Final Bow

Roy Meachum

Former Illinois U. S. Senator Charles Harding Percy, 91, died Saturday, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His passing was announced by daughter Sharon Rockefeller, wife of the current West Virginia Democratic senator and former governor.


The first time I saw “Chuck” Percy off Capitol Hill, we were in the Great Egyptian Museum in Cairo. I was making a TV documentary that aired on New York’s Public Broadcast Station; one of the curators ran into the office where I worked, breathlessly announcing: “One of your senators arrived.” He gave no name.


Some 20 yards from the entrance, I spotted “Chuck” Percy; he saw me and responded in his dramatic baritone: “Oh, Mr. Meachum! I have the hearing aid in.”


To explain the greeting: During our several journalistic encounters, I notice the senator was not hard-of-hearing, but deaf. I pushed out the device that constantly lives in my ear, to encourage him to get help. When I left Washington daily reporting, he had not acquired the device that makes all the difference in my life.


The last time the former senator and I met was at Roger L. Stevens’ lunch table; the ex-legislator lived nearby, in Georgetown. For my benefit, on that occasion, he trotted out the remote-controlled digital aids he wore in both ears. About my privilege to read to Roger after the stroke that left him generally paralyzed and mute, I wrote before. Now and then, “Chuck” Percy comforted the man who built Washington’s Kennedy Center and founded the National Endowment for the Arts, all with the senator’s vigorous support, along with Democrat Philip Hart and fellow Republican, Charles Mathias, born in Frederick. I admired and respected all three for rejecting partisanship in favor of genuine patriotism, the country’s best interest.


The trio forged together a strong voice for moderation in the Congress despite their Christian differences: Michigan’s Phil Hart was Roman Catholic, Maryland’s “Mac” Mathias Episcopalian and “Chuck” Percy proudly Christian Scientist, which might have contributed to his reluctance to use an artificial device to improve his hearing ability. In any event, I can recall no more honorable gentlemen in my 45 years in Washington.


Phil Hart died first, breathing his last in 1976, the bicentennial year, while church bells rang and cannon roared to celebrate the nation’s birth. In memoriam, his fellow senators named the new office building for him. He was still Michigan’s incumbent but announced he would not run again, for health reasons.


Despite a last-minute television appeal to voters, “Chuck” Percy was defeated in 1984, shortly before I started a column in Frederick. “Mac” Mathias remained in the senate. I publicly noted the man given credit for the Illinois senator’s defeat had bought property in Maryland. The state’s pro-Israeli bi-weekly publication said the real estate buy was prompted by the intention to campaign against Frederick’s native son whose family home stands beside the county Civil War courthouse – later City Hall.


The out-of-stator’s animus grew from senators Percy and Mathias’ efforts to free Washington from Jerusalem’s domination. For their “sins,” the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee decided the two must go; AIPAC engineered my removal from several television news departments. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s order to the Jewish state to renounce the 1956 victory in Egypt’s Suez Canal is still the White House’s only independent stand in modern Middle East history.


Faced with the reality of his colleague’s loss, Frederick’s Mac Matthias tossed in his political towel that was picked up by Baltimore’s Barbara Mikulski, whose base constituency included a number of pro-Israelis. At the time of his death last year, my column observed that out of the three politicians who were heroes to me, Charles Harding Percy alone survived.


Now, “Chuck” is gone.


Misericordia! Oy vey! Ya hosarra!


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