His Politics Crossed the Party Line

Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey Jr., ’50, JD ’53

July 9, 2024

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A battle-tested Marine who held a Silver Star, a Navy Cross, and two Purple Hearts, Pete McCloskey was a liberal Republican politician who demanded that the United States exit Vietnam and co-authored the Endangered Species Act.

Portrait of Pete McCloskeyPhoto: Climate One

Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey Jr., ’50, JD ’53, died of congestive heart failure on May 8 at his home in Winters, Calif. He was 96.

In the Korean War, McCloskey led six bayonet charges as the commander of a rifle platoon, an experience that set him up for his subsequent life as a trailblazer unafraid of a fight. In 1967, after speaking out against the Vietnam War, McCloskey, then an attorney, upset Shirley Temple Black in a special election for the 12th congressional district. Four years later, bucking party orthodoxy, he campaigned on an antiwar platform in a bid to unseat Nixon in the Republican presidential primaries. When the Watergate scandal broke, McCloskey was the first on either side of the aisle to call for Nixon’s impeachment.

The early 1970s also brought an increase in McCloskey’s environmental activism. He co-chaired the first Earth Day, in 1970; three years later, the Endangered Species Act, which he co-wrote, passed with bipartisan support. In an essay published in A Wild Success: The Endangered Species Act at 40, McCloskey refers to the act as “the greatest contribution I have made in my lifetime to the welfare of this nation.”

After losing a Senate bid in 1982—partly over his iconoclastic call to cut aid to Israel unless it gave up Gaza and the West Bank—McCloskey retired from Congress. He returned to Woodside, Calif., and to practicing law. In an intense mid-1980s case, he represented residents of East Palo Alto who opposed the move to incorporate the community as a city. 

As usual, McCloskey took heat, and, as usual, he shrugged it off. “The flack didn’t bother me,” he said in a 1985 interview with Stanford Lawyer. “It’s less than I got when I said Richard Nixon was a crook, or that we ought to get out of Vietnam, or that the Jewish lobby was too active in regard to Israel. It sort of blows off your back after a while.”

Joe Cotchett, an attorney and a powerful player in the California Democratic Party, met McCloskey 45 years ago on the campaign trail. “I was working for another candidate,” Cotchett says, “but in Pete I saw integrity beyond integrity, someone who stood up for people who had no voice.” McCloskey joined Cotchett’s law firm in 2004, and the two tried major environmental cases together. In 2007, McCloskey, a lifelong Republican, registered as a Democrat.

McCloskey is survived by his wife of 42 years, Helen, and four children from an earlier marriage to Caroline Wadsworth (now Rayfield), ’51: Nancy, Peter, John, and Kathleen, ’80.

John Roemer is a freelance writer based in Sausalito, Calif. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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