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They don’t make them like Mathias anymore

Charles McC. (“Mac”) Mathias, who died on Monday at the age of 87, was one of my heroes when I was a teenager. He was a liberal Republican in a party that was then only in the early stages of moving right. When Lyndon Johnson was pushing through civil rights and the Great Society, Mathias was part of a robust group of House Republicans who supported reform. That was back when “bi-partisanship” was an actual possibility, and when a good many Republicans saw government as having the potential to do much good.

Then-Sen. Matheas
Then-Sen. Charles Mathias Jr. holds a press conference in Washington on the issue of Chesapeake Bay cleanup, October 22, 1986. (Photo-James K.W. Atherton/The Washington Post)

Mathias saw the Republican tradition running cleanly from Lincoln through TR to Dwight D. Eisenhower. He insisted that the Republican tradition was progressive, and he acted accordingly. He continued on that path when he was elected to the Senate in 1968. "We cannot rally a responsible political majority by appealing only to the fears and insecurities of a group that is all white and prematurely aged," he said in 1971.

Little of what he did endeared him to an increasingly conservative party, though it was impossible for anyone not to like this gracious, warm and courtly man. Maryland voters continued to like him just fine, re-electing him to the Senate twice. He left the Senate voluntarily in 1986.

This was his own account of his political roots, offered in his last major political act -- his endorsement of Barack Obama for president on The Washington Post op-ed page a week before Election Day:

This decision, and this hard-fought race, have been difficult for me. In 1860, my great-grandfather ran for the Maryland Senate from Frederick on the anti-slavery Republican ticket. At the top of that ticket was Abraham Lincoln. In 1912, my grandfather rallied to Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose. Most of the Mathias family has voted Republican ever since. In 1964, as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, I astounded many of my friends and supporters by voting for Barry Goldwater, despite disagreeing with many of his views and despite his lack of support in my congressional district. I publicly endorse the Democratic candidate for president with a sense of the historic significance of the choice before us all.
I was the most boring thing you could be in high school, a liberal Republican, and in my high school yearbook, you can see a Mac Mathias for Senate poster in the back of my yearbook picture. Thanks to my 12-year old daughter, who plays soccer with Mathias’ granddaughter, I got to chat with him a couple of years ago. He was suffering from Parkinson’s, but his son Rob had brought him to a game on a beautiful afternoon and, with some effort, got him seated comfortably at the sideline. (We should all hope to have kids as devoted as Rob was to his dad.) Through all the difficulties Mathias had in communicating at that point, he was still sharp and still charming. I was exhilarated at having met a personal hero. And by sheer chance a few months ago, my niece found that 42-year old Mathias for Senate poster in the back of an old bookshelf of mine that my sister had moved to her house. I gave it to Rob by way of offering a small token in honor of a family’s political trajectory that began in an alliance with Honest Abe. I join my colleague Colby King in mourning Mathias’ passing. He was an exceptional and courageous man, and a good and decent man, too.

By E.J. Dionne  | January 27, 2010; 12:37 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Comments

I vaguely remember Mr. Mathias, more so others, including Mike Mansfield, Everett Dirkesen, Jerry Ford - the last two the loyal and civil opposition during the Johnson years. Mitch McConnel, John Boehner and Eric Cantor couldn't shine their shoes. They were statesmen. The current bunch are hacks.

Look at what we have now. Apparently politics has become a fast track to celebrity for a hoard of mediocre, self serving scum, just scum.

Look, and listen, to Eric Cantor as his voice lessons help him lose his southern accent. Pathetic. Totally blind ambition.

With the caliber of the majority of members of Congress, including the Senate, I just don't know if there is much hope for the country anymore. I have never felt that way before, even when the Supreme Court perpetrated a coup and put GW Bush in the White House.

Posted by: edismae | January 27, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

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