Pete McCloskey, antiwar candidate who took on Nixon, dies at 96

When Pete McCloskey challenged President Nixon for the Republican nomination in 1972, his defeat was nothing short of stunning. Only one of the 1,348 delegates at the Miami convention voted for McCloskey, and nobody gave a speech on his behalf.

Running to protest the war in Vietnam, the California congressman never expected to win, but he had no idea his short-lived campaign would cost him so many friends. Outside a basement meeting room at the Fontainebleau Hotel, someone said he must be the loneliest man in town, and he agreed.

“It’s always lonely at conventions like this,” McCloskey, haggard and hoarse, told reporters. “But then Patrick Henry was lonely when he talked about liberty.”

McCloskey was no revolutionary, but, as a decorated Marine veteran who wanted U.S. troops out of Vietnam and as the first congressman to urge consideration of Nixon’s impeachment on the House floor, he led a life of vigorous dissent.

A Stanford-educated attorney and an ardent outdoorsman, Paul Norton “Pete” McCloskey Jr. died Wednesday at his home in Winters, Calif., said longtime family friend Lee Houskeeper. McCloskey was 96.

The cause, Houskeeper said, was congestive heart failure.

“He was always somebody who had the ability to act from complete integrity and not rely on ideology or party pressure,” Helen McCloskey, the congressman’s wife of 42 years, said in an interview Wednesday night.

With a photogenic square chin and a shock of Kennedy-esque hair, McCloskey represented his San Mateo district in Congress from 1967 to 1983. In that period, he may have become “the only political figure in America who has managed to offend just about everybody,” his friend, actor Paul Newman, said in a trailer for a 2009 documentary.

His outspokenness about Vietnam earned McCloskey an exile, as he later characterized it, to the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. But even in what he first considered a congressional backwater, McCloskey managed to upset many of his fellow Republicans.

“Well, the Congress then was much more inclined to be made up of 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds who had grown up at a time when development and progress was the keynote of the country,” he told The Times in 1985. “Environmentalists in those days were viewed as little old ladies in tennis shoes or nuts or cranks or kooks.”

In the relative obscurity of his position, McCloskey thrived. “I was able to help put together a coalition that quadrupled the money for clean water with this funny little bill called the National Environmental Policy Act,” he said. “I’ll tell you, if the Congress had known what was in it, that bill wouldn’t have passed.”

He co-authored the 1973 Endangered Species Act — “the one thing I was proudest of, in that miserable town called Washington,” he said in a 2012 interview with environmentalist Huey Johnson.

McCloskey was co-chair of the first Earth Day. Its Democratic organizers, reaching across the aisle in 1970, could find no other Republican willing to do it.

But not every Democrat was enthralled with the blunt-talking McCloskey, particularly after he started airing his views on the Middle East in the early 1980s. McCloskey supported Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and angered Jewish organizations with his criticism of what he saw as “the Jewish lobby’s” undue influence over U.S. policies.

In 1982, McCloskey lost to future governor Pete Wilson in a primary election for the U.S. Senate. He told The Times that his controversial positions on Israel might have contributed to his defeat.

“He has been supportive of the Palestinian people’s plight since the late 1970s,” Helen McCloskey said. “Of course, now that is very relevant.”

Returning to California, McCloskey practiced law in the San Francisco area before cutting back his hours and moving to a ranch near the tiny Yolo County town of Rumsey.

Raising Arabian horses and growing organic olives and oranges, McCloskey made a quixotic primary run in 2006 against Rep. Richard Pombo, a longtime Republican congressman known for his opposition to environmental regulations. McCloskey lost but was credited by Democrats with weakening Pombo, who was defeated in the general election.

A year later, McCloskey, repelled by a series of influence-peddling scandals and the George W. Bush administration’s “misdeeds and incompetence,” switched parties. For 59 years he had been a Republican, but in an email to local newspapers, the fledgling Democrat decried “the stench of Jack Abramoff” and declared of Republican leaders: “A pox on them and their values.”

McCloskey was born in San Bernardino on Sept. 29, 1927, and raised in South Pasadena. His father and both grandfathers were attorneys.

After graduating high school in 1945, he served in the Navy until 1947. He earned an undergraduate degree at Stanford in 1950 and signed on with the Marines for combat in Korea. His commendations included the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and, for wounds received while leading a rifle platoon, two Purple Hearts.

At a Christmas party in 2011, he gave one of them to then-Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democratic lawmaker from Hillsborough. As an aide to Rep. Leo Ryan in 1978, she was shot five times while helping to evacuate defectors fleeing Jonestown, the Guyana commune where some 900 people died in a massacre.

“She earned it,” McCloskey told The Times. “She got hurt worse than I did.”

McCloskey’s wounds were also emotional. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he had recurring dreams of peering into a trench and emptying his weapon into young, terrified enemy troops.

In 2014, he traveled to North Korea and arranged to meet with a war veteran from the other side — a retired three-star general who, like McCloskey, had been wounded.

“I told him how bravely I thought his people had fought, and we embraced,” McCloskey told The Times. “We ended up agreeing that we don’t want our grandchildren or great-grandchildren to fight, that war is hell, and there’s no glory in it.”

McCloskey is survived by Helen — his longtime press secretary whom he married in 1982 — and four children by his first wife: Nancy, Peter, John and Kathleen.

The relationship between McCloskey and Helen, who was 26 years his junior, is the subject of a documentary film, “Helen and the Bear,” made by their niece, Alix Blair, which premiered at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto last month.

Helen McCloskey said her husband had a bawdy sense of humor and “was very open-minded in the most wonderful way.”

When he was 82, she said, she asked him: “‘Would you like to try magic mushrooms?’ And, oh my God, he loved them.” The PTSD-afflicted congressman, she said, awoke from his first trip and said: “Why is that illegal?”

“He was never old,” Helen said. “A lot of people, when they get older they kind of defend the box that they’ve created that they think the world fits into, and anything new, they either deplore or condemn. Pete was never like that.”

Chawkins is a former Times staff writer.

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