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Morain: A liberal Republican's role in civil rights

  • California Sen. Thomas Kuchel sat beside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Associated Press)

As California Republicans struggle to halt their decline, they might want to reconsider one whom they banished long ago, a U.S. senator who served in the grand old tradition of Earl Warren and Hiram Johnson.

Thomas Kuchel is not a name that gets mentioned much any more. Some of today's leading politicians can't quite place him, or they mispronounce his name, (KEE-kul).

But 50 years ago last Wednesday, Kuchel sat next to Martin Luther King Jr. as President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. As Senate Republican whip, Kuchel led the drive for votes in support of the landmark law to force the end of segregation, an issue he championed throughout his career. Of the 33 Republicans in the Senate, 27 voted for it — a far stronger support than among the Democrats. Times have changed.

“He was someone who was totally committed to the goal that everyone was created equal and ought to be treated that way,” Leon Panetta told me by phone the other day. “It was more than just politics for Tom Kuchel. It was a gut feeling.”

Kuchel gave Panetta his start in politics, hiring him in 1966. Panetta went on to serve briefly in the Nixon White House, and 16 years in Congress, representing the Monterey area, before becoming President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, and President Barack Obama's defense secretary and CIA director.

“This was a different time,” said Panetta, who was a young lawyer and a Republican. “Democrats and Republicans of course had their differences. But when it came to major issues, like civil rights, they really did work together.”

Kuchel was born in Anaheim, the son of a newspaper publisher who clashed with the Ku Klux Klan. He won an Assembly seat in 1936 at age 26, roomed at the Sutter Club when the Legislature was in session and befriended Warren. When Sen. Richard Nixon became vice president in 1953, Gov. Warren appointed Kuchel to fill the post. He held the seat until 1968, and died in 1994.

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