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John Culver, who represented Iowa in Congress for 16 years, has died

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Senator John Culver, official portrait

John Culver, who represented Iowa in both chambers of Congress, died on Wednesday at his home in Washington D.C. He was 86 years old.

Culver, a Democrat, represented Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, which then included Linn County, for 10 years, starting in 1965. He then served one term in the U.S. Senate, from 1975 to 1981. His son Chet, one of five Culver children, served as governor of Iowa from 2007 to 2011.

During an April 2016 interview at the John C. Culver Public Policy Center at Simpson College, Culver was asked what he found to be the most satisfying part of public service.

“I think the things that you can do for other people… enhance their lives, improve their opportunities, enrich their lives,” he said. “I think it’s hard to imagine anything more satisfying than being able to be in a position to do that for people.”

Culver was born on Aug. 8, 1932, in Rochester, Minnesota. His family moved to Cedar Rapids when he was a child. Culver developed an early interest in politics, which grew after he took part in Boy’s State during his junior year in high school.

“My father was a Republican. I don’t think I knew any Democrats,” Culver recalled in the April 2016 interview.

That changed when he went to college at Harvard University, where he befriended fellow student Edward Kennedy. The two remained close friends, and in 2009, Culver was one of the speakers at Sen. Kennedy’s memorial service.

After finishing his studies at Harvard and receiving a degree from Harvard Law School, Culver served in the U.S. Marine Corps, attaining the rank of captain.

In 1963, he returned to Cedar Rapids and began to practice law. With encouragement from the Kennedys, Culver ran for Congress in 1964 and won.

Culver’s service in the House coincided with the height of Vietnam War, and was notable for his defense of free speech and the rights of protesters. He was one of only 16 members of the House to vote against a bill outlawing flag burning in 1967.

Culver explained his vote to the Gazette by saying, “Congress and the American people must rise above the emotionalism and provocation of the moment to preserve long-term constitutional principles over momentary patriot fear.”

He said that although he personally found flag burning “particularly offensive,” he could not vote for a law he believed violated the First Amendment.

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That vote, and Culver’s opposition to a bill that would have stripped student protesters of financial aid for college, were cited by Vice President Spiro Agnew in a 1970 attack on Culver as a “radical liberal.”

Culver shrugged off the attack, telling Coe College students, “It is the easiest thing in the world to vote for all that junk. It’s easy to ignore your oath of office.” But Culver said he wouldn’t ignore his oath, and he considered the attack by Agnew to be a sign he was doing something right.

Culver was reelected in 1970. Agnew was reelected as Richard Nixon’s vice president in 1972, but didn’t finish his term. Under investigation for bribery and corruption, Agnew resigned in 1973, and pleaded no contest to felony tax evasion.

Culver was never a radical — he was remembered for his willingness to work with both Republicans and Democrats equally — but he was a liberal, and he was one of several liberal incumbents to lose in the conservative wave that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980.

Campaigning in 1980, Culver came out against deregulating the price of oil and a major increase in spending on nuclear weapons, and supported a treaty with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear weapons. He also supported allowing federal funds to be used for women’s health needs including abortion services, and firmly favored reproductive choice. The Republican candidate in the race, Chuck Grassley, took the opposite position on all those issues.

The combination of a stagnant economy at the national and state levels, and strong backing from the Christian right, helped Grassley defeat Culver.

After leaving office, Culver practiced law in Washington D.C. and worked with various public policy centers. He also co-authored a 2000 biography of Henry A. Wallace, the Iowa progressive who served as vice president under Franklin Roosevelt.

Asked in the Culver Center interview how he’d like to be remembered, Culver said, “I guess, that I was honest and gave it my best.”

Culver is survived by his wife of 34 years, Mary Jane Checchi, his five children and eight grandchildren. Funeral arraignments have not yet been announced.


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