Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Long ago, a liberal Republican helped win passage of the Civil Rights Act

As California Republicans struggle to halt their decline, they might want to reconsider one whom they banished long ago, a U.S. senator who served in the grand old tradition of Earl Warren and Hiram Johnson.

Thomas Kuchel is not a name that gets mentioned much any more. Some of today’s leading politicians can’t quite place him, or they mispronounce his name, (KEE-kul).

But 50 years ago last Wednesday, Kuchel sat next to Martin Luther King Jr. as President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. As Senate Republican whip, Kuchel led the drive for votes in support of the landmark law to force the end of segregation, an issue he championed throughout his career. Of the 33 Republicans in the Senate, 27 voted for it – a far stronger support than among the Democrats. Times have changed.

“He was someone who was totally committed to the goal that everyone was created equal and ought to be treated that way,” Leon Panetta told me by phone the other day. “It was more than just politics for Tom Kuchel. It was a gut feeling.”

Kuchel gave Panetta his start in politics, hiring him in 1966. Panetta went on to serve briefly in the Nixon White House, and 16 years in Congress, representing the Monterey area, before becoming President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, and President Barack Obama’s defense secretary and CIA director.

“This was a different time,” said Panetta, who was a young lawyer and a Republican. “Democrats and Republicans of course had their differences. But when it came to major issues, like civil rights, they really did work together.”

Kuchel was born in Anaheim, the son of a newspaper publisher who clashed with the Ku Klux Klan. He won an Assembly seat in 1936 at age 26, roomed at the Sutter Club when the Legislature was in session and befriended Warren. When Sen. Richard Nixon became vice president in 1953, Gov. Warren appointed Kuchel to fill the post. He held the seat until 1968, and died in 1994.

I reached Kuchel’s daughter, Karen, who lives in the Los Angeles area with her mother, Kuchel’s widow, now 96. Karen could recall snippets, like the time they were in the den of their home in Washington, D.C., and her father said how outraged he was that African Americans were relegated to sitting at the back of buses.

For the sort of detail I sought, she urged that I call Jason Bezis. Bezis is a lawyer who lives in Lafayette, works for the U.S. attorney in San Francisco and became fascinated by Kuchel more than 20 years ago.

He has interviewed people who knew and worked with Kuchel, and has gone through thousands of pages of Kuchel’s papers at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. He hopes to write a book; there’s quite a story to tell.

Among the gems Bezis has unearthed is a letter dated July 2, 1964, from Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the Minnesota Democrat who with Kuchel led the effort to deliver Senate votes for the Civil Rights Act.

“Dear Tommy,” the letter began. “Many people say that words come easy to me. Maybe so, but right now I find it difficult to express my sincere appreciation for your invaluable cooperation and support during the Civil Rights debate. … We participated in an historic decision. These will be days that we will long remember. Again, my thanks to you, Tom.”

King thanked him, too: “The able and courageous leadership which you gave to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has earned for you the sincere gratitude of freedom loving people the world over.”

Although Kuchel helped win passage of the Civil Rights Act, he faced defeat in 1964. Back home, conservatives and the real estate industry promoted an initiative to repeal the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which sought to end housing discrimination.

“Most important of all, and simply as an American, I do not want California to dignify discrimination, nor encourage intolerance, nor mock the American Constitution and the American conscience,” he said then. The initiative passed easily; courts later struck it down.

Kuchel helped run New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s 1964 presidential primary campaign against Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. A UPI story quoted Kuchel in May 1964 as warning that the “radical right” was trying to seize the GOP.

“If the attempt, God forbid, were successful, then the death knell of the two-party system would have been sounded,” Kuchel said.

Kuchel did not endorse Goldwater against LBJ in 1964. Or Nixon when he ran against Pat Brown for governor in 1962. Or George Murphy, a conservative, for a U.S. Senate seat. Or Ronald Reagan when he defeated Brown in 1966. It all took a toll.

Richard Viguerie, a pioneer of direct-mail attacks, helped conservative Max Rafferty wrest the 1968 Republican nomination for senator from Kuchel. Bezis found a mailer by Viguerie showing Rafferty next to photos of Reagan, Murphy, Nixon and Goldwater, saying he had endorsed each. The next page shows Kuchel above four blank spaces, saying Kuchel had endorsed none of them.

Kuchel’s campaign party in Los Angeles became a wake; Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated that night not far away, at the Ambassador Hotel. Bezis found a news clip in which Walter Cronkite referred to that night’s twin tragedies of Kennedy’s assassination and Kuchel’s defeat.

Democrat Alan Cranston defeated Rafferty in 1968, and served in the Senate until 1993, when he was succeeded by Barbara Boxer, who almost certainly will be replaced by another Democrat whenever she retires.

There are many signs of the California Republican Party’s decline. One surely is that 81 percent of the party’s most loyal voters are white, a Public Policy Institute of California survey shows. There are many causes. Last week, the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express emailed a fundraising pitch:

“This past week in Mississippi, we watched as a Republican establishment incumbent, Thad Cochran, deliberately, and possibly illegally, pandered to black liberal Democrats in order to steal the Republican primary election. Whose side are they on? It’s certainly not the side of conservative Americans.”

Imagine that. A Republican senator tried to appeal to African Americans. What was he thinking? Perhaps that they matter, too.

California Republican Party registration might not hover at 29 percent if Kuchel’s wing had prevailed, or survived. But he and Republicans like him are forgotten, except by all but a few.

In his fine book, “An idea whose time has come,” about the Civil Rights Act, journalist Todd S. Purdum quotes Kuchel as saying: “This issue should not be a partisan fight. It should be, and is, an American fight.” Purdum wrote in Politico last week that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid mentioned Kuchel in a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. He mispronounced Kuchel’s name.

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