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Ex-Sen. Kuchel Dies; Last of State's GOP Progressives

November 23, 1994|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thomas H. Kuchel, U.S. senator from California for 16 years and the last major officeholder from the progressive Republican line in state politics that stretched back to Earl Warren and Hiram Johnson, has died at age 84.

Kuchel died Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills of lung cancer, Dick Arnold, Kuchel's law partner and friend, said Tuesday.

A friend and protege of Warren, Kuchel was appointed by Gov. Warren as state controller and as U.S. senator before he was elected to those posts in his own right.

Although he was the Republican whip in the Senate from 1962 to 1966--the second most powerful Senate leadership post in his party--Kuchel refused to endorse four leading Republican candidates for public office in those years: Richard M. Nixon for governor of California in 1962, Barry Goldwater for President and George Murphy for the U.S. Senate in 1964, and Ronald Reagan for governor in 1966.

In 1968, Kuchel lost his bid for a third full term, beaten in the Republican primary by right-wing educator Max Rafferty, who was then defeated by Democrat Alan Cranston in the general election.

Rafferty's defeat of Kuchel was the Republican right-wing's revenge for Kuchel's recalcitrance toward conservative candidates, and it spelled the end of the proudly outspoken progressive era in California's Republican Party. Later, when the essentially moderate Pete Wilson was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican, he was careful to support Reagan and other candidates of the Republican right.

Kuchel never apologized for being out of step with the rightward drift of the GOP, which was particularly marked in California.

In an interview long after his retirement, he extolled the virtues of progressivism, the essence of which he said had been defined in the 19th Century by British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, who remarked that the main purpose of government was to "distribute the amenities of life on an ever-increasing scale to an ever-increasing number."

"Progressive Republicans brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many," Kuchel said. "What comes particularly to my mind is Medicare. If it weren't for Medicare today, there would be tens of thousands of Americans living in the poorhouse, with no care. It was a baker's dozen progressive Republicans in the Senate who agreed we would vote for Medicare. . . . I was their spokesman, and we provided the necessary margin for passage."

Kuchel also expressed particular pride in the progressives' support of civil rights bills for the enfranchisement of blacks and desegregation of public facilities during the 1960s.

By contrast, he said with characteristic disdain, the main feature of "right-wing Republicans," as he understood them, "was militant anti-communism. . . . They seemed convinced we were about to be invaded by the communists."

Kuchel was born Aug. 15, 1910, in Anaheim, where his father, Henry Kuchel, was a newspaper publisher who had crusaded against the Ku Klux Klan. His father became blind the year the senator-to-be was born, and as a boy Kuchel used to read the Congressional Record to him.

Graduated from USC in 1932 and from USC Law School in 1935, Kuchel first was elected to public office at 26, winning an Assembly seat from Orange County. When he was 30, he was elected chairman of the Republican State Central Committee, the youngest man ever to hold that position.

It was during his legislative years that he first met Warren, who became state attorney general in 1939 and governor in 1943.

"I saw him quite often," Kuchel later recalled. "I was single and living in the Sutter Club during the legislative sessions, and he'd stay there too when he was in Sacramento. We developed a good friendship."

It was to be the decisive relationship in Kuchel's career. When state Controller Harry B. Riley died in 1946, it was Gov. Warren who called Kuchel, then a state senator fresh from World War II Navy service, and told him, "It's a fine job, and I think you have the qualifications." Six years later, when then-Sen. Nixon was elected vice president, it was Warren who insisted, despite some reluctance from Kuchel, on appointing him to the U.S. Senate.

Warren was shortly to go to Washington himself, as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, where he became a leading judicial liberal and eventually came under bitter attack from the far right. It was appropriate that his protege, Kuchel, was to emerge as the Senate's most outspoken Republican foe of the far right.

In fiscal matters, the senator was a conservative. He strongly supported American involvement in Vietnam for a long time. Even after the devastating Tet offensive by the North Vietnamese in 1968, he remarked, "I don't want this senator, or any U.S. senator, to indicate by his words that there is dissension among us" on Vietnam policy.

But he worked hard for such moderate causes as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and favored the atomic test ban treaty and other steps toward detente with the Soviet Union.

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