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Pete McCloskey, former California congressman, combat veteran and environmental leader, dies at 96

Former California Congressman Pete McCloskey, left, and surfer Joao Demacedo lead a group of activists down the entrance to Martin's Beach in Half Moon Bay, California, on March 14, 2013. (John Green/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey, a decorated Korean War combat marine who beat celebrity Shirley Temple to win a seat in Congress representing California in the late 1960s, then became the first Republican in the House to call for Richard Nixon’s resignation and a co-chair of the first Earth Day, died Wednesday. He was 96.

McCloskey, a colorful, contrarian figure for generations, died at his house in Winters, in rural Yolo County, of congestive heart failure.

Throughout his life, McCloskey was known as someone who put principle over politics, even when it ruffled feathers. A square-jawed iconoclast, he was a prominent member of what today is nearly an extinct breed in Congress — a liberal Republican.

McCloskey also was a champion of environmental issues, who saw his work as a continuum of the conservation efforts of former President Teddy Roosevelt.

He was co-chairman of the first Earth Day in 1970 with Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat, a strong supporter of passing the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and in later life an advocate for opening Martins Beach in San Mateo County to the public after it was closed by billionaire Vinod Khosla in 2008.

“He stood for everyone without a voice, and was especially passionate about our environment — he was afraid of nothing or anyone who sought to take advantage of another,” said Joe Cotchett, his law partner since 2004. “He was the epitome of a leader, as demonstrated throughout his entire life.”

McCloskey was born on September 29, 1927, in Loma Linda, California, the son of Mary Vera (McNabb) and Paul Norton McCloskey.

His great-grandfather, orphaned during the Irish potato famine, came to San Francisco in 1853. One grandfather was a U.S. attorney and captain of the National Guard unit that helped control rioting in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. His maternal grandfather was mayor of San Bernardino in the early 1900s.

After graduating as valedictorian from South Pasadena High School in 1945, McCloskey attended Occidental College and California Institute of Technology. He served in the Navy from 1945 to 1947, then graduated from Stanford University in 1950 and Stanford University Law School in 1953.

His time at Stanford was interrupted by the Korean War. A Marine Corps rifle platoon commander, he saw some of the most difficult combat of the war, earning the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, along with two Purple Hearts. During his 10 months in North Korea, 58 of the 61 members of his platoon were either killed or wounded.

In 2011, he gave one of the Purple Heart medals to former Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo), saying that she had not been publicly recognized after being shot five times in Guyana in 1978 when she visited Jim Jones cult as a 28-year-old congressional staff member with her boss, Rep. Leo Ryan. She lay on the tarmac at an airfield for 22 hours waiting for help.

“She earned it,” McCloskey told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “She got hurt worse than I did.”

After the Korean War, McCloskey worked as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, and went into private practice as a lawyer near Stanford in 1956. He worked on civil rights and environmental cases.

He served as President of the Palo Alto Bar Association, and taught legal ethics and political science as a guest professor at Stanford University and Santa Clara Law School.

In 1967, he took on what seemed like an impossible political task.

He ran for Congress to succeed Rep. Arthur Younger, a World War I veteran who had died in office of leukemia. But he had another, much more well-known opponent in the Republican primary — former child superstar Shirley Temple Black, who most political observers expected to win easily.

But Black ran a lackluster campaign, including holding rallies that featured the song “The Good Ship Lollipop,” which she had made famous in films in the 1930s as a dancing child star.

“Everyone thought that Shirley Temple would win in a walk,” McCloskey told Mercury News in 1986. “She could have if she had not exposed herself to be so ignorant of the issues.”

But, McCloskey added, Temple Black later became “an enlightened public servant” in United Nations and various diplomatic posts.

For eight terms, McCloskey repeatedly enraged the conservative wing of his Republican party before retiring from the House of Representatives in 1982 to run unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate. He lost the Senate race in the Republican primary to San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, who eventually defeated Jerry Brown.

Almost from the moment he took his seat in the House, McCloskey began calling for the United States to withdraw from the Vietnam War and seek a gradual unification of its North and South.

He announced a quixotic campaign in 1971 for president against Nixon.

“To talk, as the president does, of winding down the war while he is expanding the use of air power is a deliberate deception,” McCloskey said. “I’ll probably get licked, but I can’t keep quiet.”

After Nixon won re-election and became embroiled in the Watergate scandal, McCloskey called for him to resign. Then-Vice President Spiro Agnew called McCloskey “a Benedict Arnold.”

During his time in Congress, McCloskey championed civil rights. He became a leading voice in environmental causes, co-sponsoring the Endangered Species Act, which Nixon signed into law in 1973.

An avid backpacker and fly fisherman, he served six years as congressional delegate to the International Whaling Conference and as congressional advisor to the Law of the Sea Treaty Delegation.

“With a twinkle in his eye but a titanium backbone, Pete McCloskey spent his whole life campaigning for peace, justice, and a livable future,” said Denis Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day. “A powerful champion of endangered species, Pete, ironically, became one: the last remaining progressive, green, anti-war Republican.”

McCloskey helped end conservative Reverend Pat Robertson’s presidential run in 1988, revealing that the televangelist was not a “combat veteran” as he had claimed. McCloskey documented how Robertson’s father, U.S. Senator A. Willis Robertson of Virginia, had used his political influence to get his son out of combat duty by having him sent to Japan for safety during the war. Robertson sued McCloskey, but lost the case.

In 2006, McCloskey re-entered politics, running against seven-term Republican Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy. He lost, then endorsed Pombo’s Democratic opponent, Jerry McNerney, who won the general election, and the following year, outraged over mistreatment of prisoners in the Iraq War during the Bush administration, McCloskey became a Democrat.

McCloskey and Caroline Wadsworth married in 1949 and had four children. Following a divorce, he later married Helen Hooper. He is survived by his wife, Helen; his children, Nancy, Peter, John and Kathleen McCloskey; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Rob Caughlan, who campaigned for McCloskey during his first run for Congress, said his friend told him about a recurring nightmare he had later in life in which he looked into the terrified eyes of a group of young soldiers sitting in a ditch just before he gunned them down. The war “had an effect on his whole life,” Caughlan said. “The reason he was such an activist for peace was because of what he experienced in war.”


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