Iowans are honoring the legacy of one of the most important legislators in our history.
Former U.S. Sen. John Culver, who died last week at age 86, earned influence among colleagues from both parties during five terms in the U.S. House and one term in the U.S. Senate. He leaves behind a legacy as a fiercely independent policymaker, the sort of thoughtful politician seemingly scarce now.
Culver was born into a Republican family and grew up in Cedar Rapids. During a 2003 interview for the John F. Kennedy Library archives, Culver recalled that he drove former President Herbert Hoover to an event in Hoover’s hometown of West Branch in the 1950s. The Harvard-educated lawyer would become a staunchly liberal legislator and a friend of the Kennedy family. Nevertheless, Culver maintained healthy relationships with Republicans and Democrats.
He held key positions on several important committees, and led an effort to modernize the Senate’s operating policies, known as the Culver Commission. Yet for all of Culver’s procedural prowess, civil liberties provided the arena for his most memorable work.
In 1967, he was one of fewer than two dozen representatives to vote against a federal flag burning ban, which he later called the most important vote he ever cast. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down such restrictions as unconstitutional, affirming Culver’s controversial defense of free expression. As a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Culver vehemently disagreed with the panel’s overly invasive process and regularly filed disagreements with the their reports.
Culver ran for re-election to the Senate in 1980 against a rising conservative movement that would send Ronald Reagan to the White House. While Culver was soundly defeated by now-Sen. Chuck Grassley, he earned Iowans’ respect by not selling out his values for political gain.
Even the conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater — who in many ways laid the ideological groundwork for the wave election that ended Culver’s legislative career — sang the praises of his former Senate colleague.
“While you and I disagree rather violently on a number of subjects, I have always respected you for your honesty and your willingness to work your heart out,” Goldwater reportedly wrote to Culver following his defeat.
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A willingness to resist fickle political winds made Culver a truly unique figure in Iowa’s celebrated political history. Our current crop of elected officials would do well to draw on his legacy.
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