John C. Culver, an Iowa Democrat remembered as politically courageous by former colleagues and whose 16 years in Congress began amid the height of the Vietnam War, died late Wednesday at his home near Washington, D.C., after he had long been chronically ill, according to family and friends. He was 86.
Raised in Cedar Rapids where he later forged a career in law, Culver was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964 shortly after working as a legislative aide for former Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, a member of the prominent political family from Massachusetts. Culver spent 10 years in the House before he successfully ran for a Senate seat, which he held for a single term. After his tenure in elected office, he worked as an attorney with a Washington-area law firm until 2009.
On Thursday, Culver’s son and former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver issued a family statement calling his father “a man of remarkable character” who led a life “of service to his family, to the state of Iowa, and to the country.”
“He lived his life thankful for the opportunity to serve, and he taught me the importance of service to others,” the former governor added. “While we are saddened to say goodbye to our father, we have only gratitude for his long life and for the example he set for us all.”
In 1980, Culver lost a re-election bid to sitting Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, now the state’s longest-serving senator. Grassley was among several elected officials to offer kind words to the Culver family Thursday, remembering the late senator as “a tough competitor” in the 1980 election and a “devoted public servant” to Iowans.
“He was proud of his record and defended it, not sacrificing his stands for political expediency, and that deserves to be recognized,” Grassley said.
Former Democratic President Bill Clinton passed along condolences via Twitter, calling Culver “a smart, principled, progressive and tough public servant who represented his constituents with honor for 16 years.”
Culver’s childhood and early life was spent in Cedar Rapids, where he graduated from public schools — including Franklin High School — before earning a college degree in American government from Harvard University in 1954. Afterward, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. as an infantryman, where he saw duty in the Philippines. He then went to Harvard’s law school, later becoming a member of the Linn County and Iowa state bar associations.
As an elected official, Culver defined himself as a civil libertarian. To that point, he recounted his “no” vote on a controversial 1967 bill that would have made flag burning a federal crime as one of his most important decisions as a lawmaker. He once referred to it as a time where “my conscience and constituency were clearly in conflict.”
“I was convinced that, although most distasteful to me, the burning of the American flag was protected speech under the U.S. Constitution I voted a lonely ‘no’ and only 15 congressmen out of 435 shared my position on the final roll call,” the late senator later said during a speech at Harvard.
“It taught me a valuable lesson: do what one believes is right, rather than popular at the moment,” he added. “In my experience, such a practice is not only good for the soul, but will most likely ultimately be accepted and respected by the electorate and one’s colleagues.”
Later in life, Culver also became active in higher education. He established the John. C. Culver Public Policy Institute at Simpson College south of Des Moines and was involved with the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington.
Culver is survived by Mary Jane Checchi, his wife of 34 years. He also leaves behind four children, including former governor Chet Culver, and eight grandchildren. He is to be buried in the small northeastern Iowa town of McGregor, where he owned a home.