IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — John C. Culver, who became an influential liberal while representing Iowa in Congress during the Vietnam War era following his time as a star football player at Harvard, has died at age 86.
Culver died at his home near Washington late Wednesday after a long bout with chronic illness, longtime friend Jim Larew told the Associated Press. Larew served as a top aide to Culver’s son, Chet Culver, when he was Iowa governor from 2007 to 2011.
“He was a man of remarkable character. He was courageous and compassionate. He lived his life thankful for the opportunity to serve, and he taught me the importance of service to others,” Chet Culver said in a statement Thursday.
His father, who won praise across the political spectrum for his independence and willingness to take tough votes, served five terms in the U.S. House after winning election in 1964. He moved to the Senate in 1974 after winning a race for an open seat, serving one six-year term before losing re-election in 1980 to Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Culver was a close friend of the late Ted Kennedy, his classmate and teammate at Harvard in the 1950s when Culver won accolades as a burly fullback on the football team. Culver was drafted to play in the NFL but didn’t pursue that career. Instead, he served three years in the Marine Corps and returned to Harvard to earn a law degree.
Kennedy hired Culver as a legislative assistant in 1962 after winning election to the Senate.
Culver returned to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he had grown up, in 1963. He was elected to represent Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District after defeating the Republican incumbent James Bromwell during the 1964 Democratic landslide. During his decade in the House, he served on the foreign relations and government operations committees, among others.
He also served on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated allegations of Communist ties against citizens. Culver was critical of its methods and wrote dissenting opinions for every committee report. He said he found the work satisfying because he considered himself a defender of civil liberties.
Culver was among the few House members who voted against a 1967 bill to make flag burning a federal crime with stiff penalties — an issue that inflamed passions during massive protests against the Vietnam War. He said in a speech later that it was among the most important votes he ever cast because it made other difficult votes throughout his career “relatively easy from that point on.”
“After studying the legislation, I realized I had to choose which fork in the road I would travel, because my conscience and my constituency were clearly in conflict,” Culver said years later. “I was convinced that, although most distasteful to me, the burning of the American flag was protected speech under the U.S. Constitution.”
Culver won the election to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Harold Hughes in 1974. He was a supporter of the SALT treaty in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to limit their nuclear stockpiles. He also wrote the resolution that established the so-called Culver Commission, a panel that helped modernize the Senate’s procedures.
Grassley, then a congressman, handily defeated Culver after a hard-fought 1980 campaign. Aides said Culver was proud to have defended, not obscured, his liberal voting record amid a conservative movement that put Ronald Reagan and other Republicans in power.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack called Culver a “strong voice who worked tirelessly” to represent the state.
“While holding his progressive values passionately, John Culver had the capacity to see compromise when it would be in the best interest of Iowa and the United States,” said Vilsack, a fellow Democrat.
After leaving office, Culver practiced law in Washington and was co-author of a biography about Henry Wallace, the Iowa farmer who served as agriculture secretary and vice president. He maintained ties to Harvard as an advisory committee member for its Institute of Politics, where he served as interim director in 2010 and has a namesake scholarship.
Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, established the John C. Culver Public Policy Center to promote civic engagement.
Culver is survived by his wife, Mary Jane Cheechi, five children and eight grandchildren. He will be buried in McGregor in northeast Iowa, where he owned a home.