U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sen. Charles Percy (1919-2011) and the Straussians

This Saturday, September 17, former Senator Charles Percy (R-IL) passed away after suffering for years with Alzheimer’s disease.  Percy, who served in the Senate from 1967 to 1985, was a leading example of a now extinct breed: the liberal Republican. Within months of being elected to the Senate, Percy was spoken of as a likely GOP Presidential nominee. But his meteoric rise within the liberal wing of his party came as that wing was rapidly losing influence. In 1968, rather than run himself, he endorsed Nelson Rockefeller’s Republican presidential primary bid.  He had planned a run in 1976, before Nixon’s resignation meant that a GOP incumbent would run that year (in fact, Percy, no fan of Nixon, had been the first Senator to propose an independent prosecutor to investigate Watergate). So Percy endorsed Ford’s reelection. In 1984, he lost his Senate seat to Paul Simon, in part due to AIPAC opposition to Percy, who had supported the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia.  Percy’s career, first as President of Bell & Howell, and then in the U.S. Senate is covered well in his New York Times obituary and elsewhere.

But I want to focus on a little noted aspect of Percy’s biography, one that links him to a strand of U.S. intellectual history that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same sentence as liberal Republicanism: the legacy of Leo Strauss. 

A key figure in Chuck Percy’s move from the boardroom to the hustings was the political theorist Robert A. Goldwin.  Goldwin did his PhD under Leo Strauss at Chicago. And though he spent about a decade in the academy (at the University of Chicago, Kenyon College, and St. John’s College, where he served as Dean, replacing Strauss’s closest intellectual friend, Jakob Klein), Goldwin made his biggest mark as a public intellectual, putting leading figures in business and politics in contact with political theorists, especially Straussian ones, at the Public Affairs Conference Center which he directed, first at Chicago (1960-66) and then at Kenyon (1966-69). After a stint working in two presidential administrations, he finished his career as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.*

Percy had been President of the Bell & Howell Corporation since 1949. By the late 1950s, he had begun to consider a move to politics, apparently encouraged by President Eisenhower, among others. In 1960, he chaired the Platform Committee at the Republican National Convention.  But his first run for office would be in 1964, when he was the Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois, eventually losing a closely fought race to the Democratic incumbent Otto Kerner (who would later chair LBJ’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which popularly bears his name).

In the run-up to this foray into electoral politics, Robert Goldwin played a key role, an account of which can be found in David Murray’s Charles Percy of Illinois (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), a campaign biography for a presidential run that never was:

One day in Pittsburgh, where he had gone for a Republican function, he met a young professor of political science from the University of Chicago, Robert A. Goldwin, a man with a basically conservative turn of mind, who talked with Percy at some length–then and later–about the theory that lay behind the everyday business of the ordering of man’s life.  For Percy, Goldwin’s book learning and philosophy filled a need; the successful pragmatist had to know not just the how but the why.  He and Goldwin talked more in the months that followed, and Goldwin was hired on a more or less regular basis, to come to [Percy’s hometown of] Kenilworth each Saturday for several hours to conduct a one-student seminar.  It was the latter-day fulfillment of the definition of ideal American education–Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.

“He’s the only businessman I know who has read all The Federalist papers,” Goldwin said once.  “We used to have assignments–reading that he would do and essays he would write about what he had read–and we’d talk about the ideas that he had found. . . .”

Another Percy associate who was with him in those days with Goldwin said later: “Those talks and those sessions with Goldwin filled a gap in Chuck’s approach to the world. He knew that some things happen which shouldn’t happen and that other things that should happen don’t happen. This told him some of the reasons for things.  He knew, for example, that he was a Republican; he’d always been one because his family was.  Now he knew what the philosophy behind his thinking really was, that there was, in many instances, a Republican way of getting at a problem and a Democratic way of getting at it. He found out why the two were different and–I think this is even more important–that the Republican way might not always be the best way to go about it.” (pp. 44-45)

Goldwin apparently worked on Percy’s unsuccessful 1964 gubernatorial campaign, though not on Percy’s successful run for the Senate in 1966, when Percy defeated longtime Democratic Senator Paul Douglas (Goldwin had, by the fall of 1966, moved to Kenyon).  Percy, for his part, contributed an introduction to a book by another Straussian, Harry Jaffa’s Equality and Liberty (1965).

But while Goldwin’s connection to his other major political advisee–Congressman, and later Ambassador to NATO, Presidential Chief of Staff, and Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld–would be much more public, the connections of Goldwin and his fellow Straussians to Charles Percy apparently continued.   Nathan Tarcov, who is in the next intellectual generation of Straussians, told me that when he took a break from academia at the beginning of the 1980s, he put out feelers to Percy’s office before eventually accepting a post in Reagan’s State Department Policy Planning Office.

I find Percy’s connection to the Straussians fascinating, in part because it violates so many clichés about Straussianism in American politics.  Percy was neither Jewish nor Catholic (he was, in fact, a practicing Christian Scientist).  He was a moderate liberal, not a conservative (let alone a neocon).  In the midst of the Watergate scandal he distinguished himself by opposing the Machiavellian political maneuvering of a President from his own party.  And his eventual political defeat came about in large measure because he was seen as soft on Israel.

None of this should lead us to see Percy as a typical Straussian (or, perhaps, as a Straussian at all). You may have noticed that even David Murray, in the passage quoted from his 1968 campaign biography of Percy, made a point of correctly stressing that Goldwin–unlike Percy–was “a man with a basically conservative turn of mind” (though interestingly, but not at all surprisingly, Leo Strauss’s name never comes up in Murray’s book).    And Jaffa, who had fallings out with many of his fellow Strauss students in the 1970s, wrote a bitter letter to Goldwin, during the latter’s stint in the Ford Administration, mocking Chuck Percy and Goldwin’s attempts to tutor him.

But Percy and his connection to the Straussians should lead us to realize that the legacy of Leo Strauss and his students in American public life is more complicated and polyvocal than it is often portrayed as being.
* I’ve previously blogged about Goldwin in his later capacity as the “White House Intellectual” of the Ford Administration.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As you know, I love this ongoing series of Straussian insights. One thing I find consistently fascinating is how Leo Strauss himself comes across as this Twilight Zone-like accidental(?) puppet master. I’m anxious to hear your theory on why this is so.

    On Jaffa, was he upset, during this falling out, over politics, philosophical practices, abstract tenets, or a mix of all three?

    Finally, I find this private tutoring business fascinating. When the up-scale Great Books folks (like Adler, Hutchins, etc.) “tutored” someone, it was always through the Aspen Institute—that high-class retreat for elite businessman. There the Great Books folks “tutored” others via reading groups with assigned texts. Adler also maintained an upscale reading group in Lake Forest. It began in the 1940s, and continued through the 1980s I think. Adler even flew back from San Francisco (from 1952-1962) to keep up the group. – TL

  2. Another great post Ben! I found this interesting:

    “He knew, for example, that he was a Republican; he’d always been one because his family was. Now he knew what the philosophy behind his thinking really was, that there was, in many instances, a Republican way of getting at a problem and a Democratic way of getting at it. He found out why the two were different and–I think this is even more important–that the Republican way might not always be the best way to go about it.”

    I would like to see this unpacked. What was “the Republican way” for a liberal Republican in the late 60s? From the vantage point of the post-Reagan era, the distinction between 60s mainstream Republican and mainstream Democratic ideologies seems barely perceptible–if one factors out the Goldwater wing of the party– at least in the sense that both were committed to a vigorous Federal presence in directing the economy and balancing social tensions. What made liberal Republicans think of themselves as having a sharp difference in philosophy from Democrats? I’m not trying to revive the old “liberal consensus,” just trying to get a sense how the ideological or philosophical difference looked from the inside for someone like Percy.

    It strikes me that perhaps the Straussians were more interested in finding politicians and public figures who were interested in ideas and sustained thought than they were in attaching themselves to a specific political ideology or building a “movement”–unless, of course, it was a movement for intellectual elitism in political life. Reagan’s “populist” turn undoubtedly spelled an end to an effective public presence for intellectualism in the Republican party.

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