Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mac Mathias

In the late spring of 1974, I was assigned as part of a team to survey some historic structures in northwest Washington near the Potomac River. One afternoon, we were having lunch in a small park across the street from the posh and infamous Watergate complex. It happened to be a brilliant day with plenty of welcomed sunshine and a fresh breeze that convinced several people to enjoy an outdoors break. Our team was easily identified by our uniforms and it wasn't unusual for passersby to ask what we were doing or inquire about the history we were surveying. One of them happened to be a well-dressed man who appeared to be waiting for an appointment across the street where any number of Washington shakers and movers lived and worked for at that time Watergate was THE place to see and be seen.

Our well-dressed inquirer was different from most because he introduced himself immediately. He was Mac Mathias. I think all of us made the connection after looking at him a bit closer. To us, he was Senator Charles "Mac"Mathias from Maryland. For the next half hour, we conversed a bit about Watergate, Nixon's situation, the current political unpleasantness, and the greater Washington experience, but he always brought the talk back to us and our task. The conversation was about everything but him.

Mac Mathias was well-known in the Senate as an independent-minded, liberal Republican. Many associates, pundits, and other political types identified him as the consummate maverick. His appeal to both sides of the political aisle moved Mike Mansfield, Majority Leader of the United States Senate, 1961-77, and a Democrat, to call Mathias the "conscience of the Senate." But being a builder of bridges in a often polarized political body can go only so far, and his liberal posture and outspoken demeanor kept him from seats of serious power in the Senate (1968-87). Still, he had a significant impact on legislation and policy, particularly in civil rights and conservation.

In my dozen or so years in and around Washington, I had several passing encounters with "the elect" and their appointees on and off the job. Most of the time, they were ordinary people with families going about their everyday lives. Mac Mathias was s serious local, coming from a well-known and highly respected political family in central Maryland. When I spent my half hour with him in that park next to Watergate, he was just being "Mac." There's a good chance that was his preferred mode, and I would have enjoyed knowing him better because of it. I wouldn't have agreed with him on many points, but he would have gladly given his all for my right to disagree. When he died earlier this week, an empty and darkened Senate Chamber likely felt his passing with a creaking desk, a moving curtain or a rustling paper on an empty desk. He was among the last of the mid-century northeast Republicans and one of the best. Today, I think much of the Washington elect is all about position, power, preference and privilege. It is a far cry from my time in that beautiful city. There's no question what a joy it would be to have more "Mac" in the Senate these days.