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Mourning 'Mac' Mathias

When I received word that former Maryland senator Charles McC. Mathias Jr. took his final breath on Monday, a part of me died, too. My four years with the senator were precious life experiences, but too dear to treat as mine alone. They were shared with “Mac” Mathias, and they went with him.

How fortunate I was to know that man of principle from Frederick, an extraordinary public servant for whom integrity was not just a good thing but, in the end, the only thing.

It was my pleasure to serve with him in the Senate during an era in which a senator’s word meant something; when “right” was not a concept subject to situational application; when “political courage” was not a matter of deciding which side to join but, rather, where to stand, even if it meant standing alone.

To say I worked for Mac Mathias is not quite accurate. Yes, from 1972 to 1976 I was one of his legislative assistants, then his chief legislative assistant. I also served as minority staff director of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, of which he was the ranking member. But my time there was not work. It was a four-year education in American governance and an opportunity to witness firsthand how government can serve the public good and how, in the wrong hands, political power can be misused.

The events that marked my service tell the tale of that era: Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation and no-contest plea to charges of income tax evasion, White House threats and Mathias’s discovery that he was on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. There was our trip to Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to kick off the campaign to renew the Voting Rights Act, and Mac’s leading roles in passing the voting-rights extension as well as the D.C. Home Rule Act. He courageously defended court desegregation rulings against Nixon-led conservative attacks and denounced the GOP’s “Southern strategy.”

He introduced an amendment to increase federal funding to educate handicapped children. And many post-Watergate campaign finance reforms and Senate efforts to end the Vietnam War also bear his name.

He was a gentle man with steel in his spine who was at his best when confronted with the oppression of others. And though an internationalist, Mathias never lost sight that he was a senator from Maryland.

The late D.C. Mayor Walter Washington and Mathias had a routine based on their mutual needs that they would employ from time to time. Both men told the story of how Washington would ask, “Now, Mac?” And Mathias would reply, “Not now, Walter, I’ll tell you when.”

When political troubles seem to be stirring in the Maryland suburbs, Washington would publicly call for a commuter tax (which would have been impossible to pass) — allowing Mathias to “defend” his constituents by denouncing the idea.

This would be followed by a call from the Senate: “What can I do for you up here on the Hill, Walter?” Mac would ask. And the city’s budget would sail through.

By Colbert King  | January 26, 2010; 6:32 PM ET
Categories:  King  | Tags:  Colbert King  
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I, too, had the privilege of working for Sen Mathias, under the tutelage of Colby King. It was a true learning experience in how to get things done in the US Senate.
Mac Mathias' staff took their jobs seriously and recognized the responsibility they had to maintain the Senator's good name and to represent the people of Maryland.
Oftentimes, we would have to "suit up" for a pending bill or amendment, contact all sides of the issue, both pro and con, and condense all this into the bottom line on a 3 by 5 card for the Senator. Or for a quick "walk and talk" with him on the way to a vote on the Senate floor.
Many times, when I'd finished briefing the Senator on a pending amendment or bill, I'd look at him and think, "He already knows all this!" How did he do it? By taking the pulse of a broad range of people - constituents, policy experts, interest groups. He wanted to mull over all sides of an issue before coming to his decision.
The people of Maryland were well served. The US Senate was a much more collegial place when Mac Mathias served there...

Posted by: beltway690 | January 26, 2010 11:14 PM | Report abuse

I neither worked for nor knew Senator Mathias. But reading this blog and the comment before mine, I am struck by the thought that, in addition to all his other virtues, Mathias certainly seems to have been a good job of character. I hope Mr.King and beltway690 will pause and reflect again on how their own presence on his staff made the good senator just that much better. Nobody does it alone.

These lovely tributes are the first thing I read this morning and while they don't exactly renew my faith in the whole of humanity, they remind me that there are good people everywhere, in every institution, and how the world is blessed when the find each other and work together for common goals.

Posted by: martymar123 | January 27, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

Mac Mathias was a true Republican in every sense. Not one of the no sayers and religious phoneys we have today. If he was able to run, they wouldn't let him because he wasn't an idealog, anti abortion, anti gay, anti health care and anti anything Obama proposes. He was a republican i could vote for.

Posted by: msjn1 | January 27, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

He was an ideologue msjn1, a liberal ideologue. His voting record was indistinguishable from that of a very liberal democrat. He was Republican only on paper.

Posted by: Hembo | January 27, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

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