During his eulogy at the memorial service for Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias of Maryland two weeks ago, Vice President Joseph Biden saluted the former liberal Republican senator as a mentor who didn’t let party divisions get in the way of fairness, principle and the national interest.
Joking about his own propensity for partisanship early in his career, the vice-president recalled how he once tore into Secretary of State George Shultz for the Reagan administration’s support of the white supremacist government in South Africa.
At one point in the 1985 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden recalled, “Mac slipped me a note. It said ‘calm down, Joe, calm down.'”
It was, Biden added, one of many examples of how Sen. Mathias earned his reputation as “the conscience of the Senate”.
“People always said Mac was ready to lean across the aisle to do the right thing,” Biden recalled. “Well, for Mac, it was easy to do. He didn’t see an aisle, he didn’t see a divide.” What he acted upon was his conscience, his conviction, what he saw as “the right thing to do.”
Sen. Mathias did more than calm down then-Sen. Biden that day. He helped calm down the entire Democratic minority on the Senate committee, and took steps that led to passage of the South Africa sanctions – legislation that played a significant role in the historic transition from white minority rule in South Africa.
Sen. Mathias and Sen. Daniel Evans, another moderate Republican, joined forces to discourage Senate Democrats from harsher sanctions that would have closed the U.S. embassy in Johannesburg and eliminated South African Airways routes to the U.S.
As a result, the two GOP senators turned a majority on the Republican-dominated committee to favor a clean, moderate, but effective bill that banned investment in South Africa, restricted exports and demanded the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of confinement. Their bold, bipartisan act of leadership led committee chairman, Richard Lugar R-Ind., to shift his own position and win passage of the bill over a veto by President Reagan, with 31 Republicans ignoring the whining of arch-conservative Jesse Helms that South Africa would be “turned over to the communists.”
Sen. Mathias was the last of a small, courageous group of liberal Republican senators. Others included Jacob Javits of New York, Charles Percy of Illinois and Clifford Case of New Jersey. Senators like them were critical forces in passage of historic legislation on civil rights, the environment, campaign finance and national security.
One of the real tragedies of the American political system today is the lack of bipartisan spirit, the absence of gutsy, independent senators and congressmen and women who are willing to seek balance and compromise to make government work.
Mathias represented Maryland in the House for eight years and the Senate for 18 years before retiring in 1986. An early advocate of civil rights, he was one of three Republicans who introduced their own civil rights bill when President Kennedy decided to postpone that issue. Their legislative initiative paved the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Mathias was an early proponent of action to protect the environment. A conservative on economic matters such as trade and fiscal policy, he fought for campaign finance reform without worrying about reelection. In his 1974 campaign, he refused to accept any contribution over $100, prompting majority leader Mike Mansfield to call him “the conscience of the Senate.”
In foreign affairs, he distinguished himself as a tough critic of runaway presidential powers and an articulate proponent of nuclear arms reduction. He was regarded as a balanced voice on the Middle East, and during one trip to the region in 1986, virtually every Arab and Israeli leader wanted to meet him to discuss a wide range of issues and differences.
He had the courage to write an article in Foreign Affairs that criticized the role of ethnic lobbies in American foreign policy – even though the article would jeopardize his reelection prospects, given strong Jewish, Irish and Greek lobbies in Maryland.
He had an enduring sense of history, of the United States, and many other countries. He loved to recite George Washington’s famous farewell address on “entangling alliances.” He knew the wording over an entrance in France’s National Assembly.
Above all, as his many admirers and staff members have acknowledged in recent days, he was a man of great common sense, decency and above all, fairness. He was, it must be said, a real patriot who acted on what he called “individual responsibility.” What he meant by that, he said, was he respected most those colleagues who “wouldn’t have to have the cover of ideology (party). They’d simply come to the conclusion that this was the right thing for the country.”
There are a few examples of bi-partisanship today – on President Obama’s renewal of focus on Afghanistan, for instance. But on most critical domestic issues, job creation, health care, the deficit, etc., many members of Congress are running for the hills, afraid of the talk show rabble. It is a great shame that there are few, if any members today with the courage, independence and vision of a Mac Mathias.
Fred Hill, of Arrowsic, served as foreign affairs director for Sen. Mathias in 1985 and 1986. A former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, he later worked on national security issues for the Department of State. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org