Senator Charles "Mac" Mathias of Maryland -- A Personal Tribute

04/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The passing of Charles "Mac" Mathias Jr., the former U.S. Senator from Maryland, was saddening. As press secretary to Senators Charles Goodell of New York and Harold Hughes of Iowa, I got to know Senator Mathias. I admired him greatly and had an abiding affection for him, which wasn't difficult; there was about his persona a contagion.

He was elected to the Senate in 1968, and would serve three terms. He devoted 35 of his 87-years to public service - including the Maryland House of Delegates, U.S. House of Representatives, and the Senate.

Senator Mathias came to The City Club of San Diego to speak, stayed the weekend, went to worship with my family at First United Methodist Church, and took a long nap that afternoon at our home. He was as pleasant and comfortable to be around as anyone I've ever known in politics.

Hardly anyone knows this, but the senator and I in the 70s talked often about the need for a new political party. He was one of the last great liberal Republican senators (one could say, almost the last), and his unhappiness with his party found him looking for an alternative (but, no, that didn't include the Democratic Party). Our intent was to assemble a delegation of people from around the country in Springfield, Illinois.

(Why, Springfield? Think Lincoln.)

Time and energy was spent toward fulfilling our idea, but, alas, to no avail. That was disappointing, but the time spent in collaboration with Senator Mathias was anything but.

He was man of independent thinking, fond of quoting Edmund Burke, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

Matt Schudel wrote the following in The Washington Post:

"During Sen. Mathias's first term, he voted against a missile system proposed by the (Nixon) administration, advocated a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and marched with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. He supported his Republican colleagues only 31 percent of the time during his first term and compiled a voting record more liberal than those of most Democrats."

While in the House of Representatives, Mathias played a key role in the drafting of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Almost from the onset of his public life he demonstrated in word and deed a deep commitment to people of color.

The Majority Leader of the Senate in that time, Mike Mansfield, Democrat of Montana, paid Senator Mathias a great tribute, calling him, "The conscience of the Senate." (Hard to imagine any senator saying that about a member of the opposition today.)

A great many affirming things have been written about Senator Mathias, about his life and public service. He deserved all of it, of course, but I also think it reflects the deep angst felt by many have over the demise of a once great political party; a party that in my time as a staffer on The Hill was graced by such outstanding Republicans as Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Ed Brooks of Massachusetts, Charles Percy of Illinois, John Sherman Cooper and Marlow Cook of Kentucky, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, Bill Saxbe of Ohio, Bob Dole and James Pearson of Kansas, Ed Case of New Jersey, Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee, Jacob Javits of New York and Charles Goodell of New York.

(That roll call of illustrious Republican senators recalls something George McGovern said to me a couple of years back when he came to San Diego to speak to The City Club, "If those Republicans were in the Senate today, they would be more liberal than most of the Democrats.")

I will close with a story I often asked Senator Mathias to tell. Why? Because there's no limit on how many times a great story can be told. But please allow one can't write the story as he told it (think of it being told with an affected Maine accent).

Here's the context and story:

During the Senate's August recess Senator Mathias and his wife and family would summer off the coast of Maine. He loved to putter around the house and fixed what needed fixing, which often meant going to a hardware store on the mainland, searching for odds and ends.

One day while was thus engaged, the store's proprietor came over and asked, "You're Mac Mathias, ain't ya?" The senator said he was. "You're from Washington, ain't ya?" "Yes", he said. "Got a lot of right smart fellows down there, ain't they?" "Indeed", was the response. "Got some that ain't so smart, ain't they? "That was also true", the senator allowed.

Then this from hardware store owner, "Kind of hard to tell the difference, ain't it?"

Charles "Mac" Mathias Jr. was an extraordinarily able public servant, a man of conscience and unyielding political principle. He also struck me as me as a person of transcendent decency. To have known him was a very great privilege, indeed.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.