Charles H. Percy, a former United States senator from Illinois and a moderate Republican who clashed with President Richard M. Nixon over Watergate and whose own presidential ambitions were stymied by Nixon’s resignation, died Saturday in Washington. He was 91.
His death was announced by the office of his son-in-law, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia. Mr. Percy had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease for many years.
A three-term senator, Mr. Percy went to Washington in 1967 after a strikingly successful career as a businessman. In 1949, at the age of 29, he was named president of Bell & Howell and then oversaw its rapid growth.
He also arrived in the capital grief-stricken: one of his daughters had been murdered during his 1966 campaign.
Mr. Percy was talked about as presidential material almost from the time he entered politics in 1964, when he ran for governor of Illinois; he narrowly lost to Otto Kerner Jr. The notion gained even wider currency in 1966, when, in an upset, he gained a Senate seat by defeating Paul H. Douglas, a respected three-term Democratic incumbent.
For many Republicans, Mr. Percy’s business background, Midwestern roots and moderate views in the increasingly liberal political climate of the 1960s made him an attractive alternative to the hard-right conservatism that voters had rejected in 1964 in the landslide defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater.
His good looks and elegant manner enhanced his appeal; Republicans retained fresh memories of their narrow presidential loss to the handsome John F. Kennedy in 1960.
In 1967, only three months into his first Senate term, Chuck Percy, as he was familiarly known, drew attention when he proposed legislation to create a private foundation to finance low-cost housing and foster home ownership among low-income families. Though the measure did not pass, it drew strong support from Republicans in both the House and the Senate.
The New York Times columnist James B. Reston called him “the hottest political article in the Republican Party.”
By the end of the year, he was considered a possible contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination; a Louis Harris poll in late 1967 put him ahead of President Lyndon B. Johnson in a head-to-head contest. But he declined to run and instead endorsed Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, another moderate.
Mr. Percy became closely identified with the more liberal wing of the party known as Rockefeller Republicans, so much so that his name became attached to them as well — “decent Chuck Percy Republicans,” as the writer Richard Ford described them in “The Lay of the Land,” his novel of suburban New Jersey.
Mr. Percy’s national stature was underlined when the endorsement of Rockefeller was treated as front-page news nationwide. The Times, making the announcement its lead article on July 26, 1968, described it as “counterbalancing” former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s endorsement of Nixon.
Mr. Percy briefly considered a bid for the White House only once. In June 1973, he formed an exploratory committee to look into a 1976 candidacy. But he closed it down after Nixon resigned in August 1974 and Vice President Gerald R. Ford became president. Within a week, Mr. Percy said Ford had gotten off to an excellent start and was likely to be nominated in 1976, as he was.
Mr. Percy’s clash with Nixon came in the spring of 1973 as the president was trying to contain the Watergate scandal, set in motion by the break-in at the offices of the Democratic opposition by a White House team of burglars and aggravated by the administration’s efforts to cover up the crime.
On May 1, the day after Nixon announced a staff shakeup and authorized a new attorney general to “make all decisions” relating to Watergate prosecutions, Mr. Percy proposed a Senate resolution demanding an independent prosecutor “of the highest character and integrity from outside the executive branch.”
Mr. Percy told the Senate: “A simple and very basic question is at issue: Should the executive branch investigate itself? I do not think so.”
His resolution was adopted without objection. Soon afterward, Nixon fumed to his cabinet that he would do all he could to make sure that Mr. Percy, who had already voted against two Nixon nominees for the Supreme Court, would never become president.
In 1977, after the election of President Jimmy Carter, Mr. Percy accused the White House budget director, Bert Lance, of backdating checks to gain tax deductions. Mr. Percy was the senior Republican on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and he and Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff, Democrat of Connecticut, the chairman, demanded that Mr. Lance resign or be fired because of that and accusations of banking crimes.
Mr. Lance resigned but was acquitted of all charges arising from the Senate inquiry. Mr. Percy later apologized for the backdating accusation.
Mr. Percy was proud of his recommendations for judicial appointments, especially that of John Paul Stevens, a former college classmate. Mr. Percy had persuaded him to take a seat on a federal appeals court in 1970 and then backed his nomination when Ford named him to the Supreme Court in 1975. Mr. Percy consulted bar associations and lawyer friends about appointments and said he never chose a political supporter for the bench.
Over his 18 years in the Senate, Mr. Percy averaged a 52 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and only 30 percent from the American Conservative Union. With the party having moved steadily to the right since then, it was a rating few if any Republicans would receive today.
“Percy’s passing reminds us that today’s Republican Party is not your mother’s Republican Party,” said Thomas C. Mann, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, adding that Mr. Percy had worked “comfortably” with Democrats.
“Perhaps the most significant change in American politics,” Mr. Mann said, “which has picked up with the most intensity in recent years, is the disappearance of moderate, pragmatic Republicans like Percy.”
Charles Harting Percy was born in Pensacola, Fla., on Sept. 27, 1919, the son of Edward Percy and the former Elizabeth Harting. He grew up in Chicago, where his father was a bank clerk. When the bank failed in the Depression and his father lost his job, the family went on relief, and Mr. Percy took several jobs as a child.
He graduated from the well-regarded New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., then received a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago. There he ran a cooperative purchasing service for fraternities and sent money home to help his family. He was also the captain of the water polo team.
Mr. Percy was still a student when he began his association with Bell & Howell, taking summer jobs. The company hired him full time after he graduated in 1941. When war came later that year, he set up schools to teach military personnel how to use Bell & Howell movie cameras. He joined the Navy in 1943, training aviation personnel.
Rising quickly through the company’s ranks, he was named president on Jan. 12, 1949, an appointment that drew wide attention not least because of his age. But the company, based near Chicago in Skokie, Ill., prospered under him as it extended its reach in the consumer electronics market and went beyond making home-movie cameras, producing components for space photography as well. Annual sales were $13 million when he took over; when he left in 1963, they were more than $160 million.
Mr. Percy married Jeanne Valerie Dickerson in 1943. She died in 1947, and in 1950 he married Loraine Diane Guyer, who survives him. He is also survived by two children from his first marriage, Sharon Percy Rockefeller of Washington and Charleston, W.Va. (she is married to Senator Rockefeller), and Roger D. Percy of Seattle; two children from his second marriage, Gail Percy of Washington and Mark Percy of Newport Beach, Calif.; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Another daughter, Sharon’s twin sister, Valerie, was bludgeoned to death in the family home in Kenilworth, Ill., during Mr. Percy’s 1966 campaign. She was 21. The police kept the case alive for more than 20 years but never identified a suspect. They did rule out burglary, however, since nothing was stolen, and said the intensity of the attack suggested that the killing had been committed by someone who knew Ms. Percy. Mr. Percy suspended his campaign for a couple of weeks but returned and won a solid victory over Mr. Douglas.
But just as Illinois voters had tired of Mr. Douglas by 1966, Mr. Percy was old goods by 1984. In a strong Republican year, with President Ronald Reagan campaigning for him, Mr. Percy could not overcome his Democratic opponent, Representative Paul M. Simon.
His position as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee seemed remote to Illinois voters, as did his manner. The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal all described him as “pompous.”
Mr. Percy never persuaded conservatives to trust him, and some actually supported Mr. Simon in the hope that Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, would succeed him in the chairmanship. The Illinois economy was weak, and Mr. Simon won a narrow victory with 50.1 percent of the vote.
After his defeat, Mr. Percy lived in Washington and led a consulting firm that sought to help United States companies export their products.
A Christian Scientist, he read the Christian Science Bible Lessons every day into his 90s.