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Mathias: Warrior in Minority

In Last Hill Fight, Md. Senator Opposes Death Penalty

By Saundra Saperstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 1986; Page A1

In the waning hours of a quarter-century in Congress, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) found himself once again where he has usually been, in the minority.

Mathias and a small band of congressional moderates and liberals from the two parties were determined to rid the massive antidrug bill of a death penalty provision, backed by majorities in the House and Senate.

Closeted in the ornate office of Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), the death-penalty opponents and backers fought for ground as Mathias straddled a chair and quietly hung on the edges of the debate. Finally, sliding forward on the chair as if he were riding a horse, Mathias moved in and made his point.

"If you're asking whether or not I will filibuster, if the death penalty stays in that bill," Mathias warned, "I say to you, I am prepared to spend Christmas here."

Everyone knew that he meant it, said Mathias' ally, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), and within minutes the death penalty provision was buried. "It would be the way Mac would love to go out."

"Mac" Mathias, as he is known to his friends, is going out exactly as he came in: a moderate, sometimes liberal, voice on everything from civil rights to foreign policy, one of a dwindling breed of progressive Republicans, increasingly outnumbered, but not always outgunned.

"A political constant in changing times," said his longtime friend, former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), "he has done it with grace and dignity and ease."

Mathias was elected to the House of Representatives in 1960 when the Republican Party's progressive wing was dominant and its leader, the late Nelson Rockefeller, still had a shot at the White House. Mathias leaves the Senate, retiring after three terms, with the progressive wing all but evaporated and Ronald Reagan entrenched at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Still, the 64-year-old Mathias' final weeks in the Senate were consistent with his past. In August, as the president lobbied for more funds for his "Star Wars" nuclear missile defense, Mathias helped lead a fight to deepen cuts in the program already slated by the Senate. He came out on the losing end of a 50-to-49 vote.

A week later, Mathias unsuccessfully opposed the administration on aid to the contras fighting the Nicaraguan government.

Also, he jointly drafted an amendment to strengthen sanctions against South Africa, and when the president vetoed the bill, he voted -- this time on the winning side -- to override.

That fierce independence has carried a price tag.

In the late 1970s, Mathias' conservative Republican colleagues made sure he would never inherit the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, although he was in line for the post. They maneuvered to place a conservative in line instead, and when the Republicans captured the Senate in 1980, it was Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) who took the chair.

In more recent years, some Republicans have said that Mathias' position so far from the party's power base has made him little more than an ineffective relic. He was snubbed in 1984 at his party's state convention, where Richard L. Andrews, a Baltimore City Central Committee member, publicly called him "a liberal swine."

But there were no such sentiments in the Senate last week, where Mathias was praised even by his opponents for his obstinate independence and straightforward style. Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), who faced off against Mathias in the death penalty battle, said that some legislators cave in at the first sign of opposition. "But he stands firm. He goes out with great class and great force in what he believes."

He also exited with his whimsical ways intact.

Padding through the marble corridors of the Capitol last week, he often eluded even his own aides, causing such exasperation that one of them grumbled, "We should sprinkle him with green dust, like they use in the Soviet Union, so we'll know where he is."

Slightly rotund and rumpled, Mathias has defeated all attempts to dress him up. He drives a battered blue Vega and sometimes brings his Labrador retriever, Pippa, to work. Occasionally, when tempers flare in a Senate conference room, he will burst into off-key song. One of his favorites is a ditty about the Titanic that ends, "It was sad when the great ship went down . . . . "

He "gives off impulses of calmness when the rest of us are going bonkers," said Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.).

Last week, as the Senate voted on whether to head off Mathias' threatened filibuster on the death penalty, his allies paced and plotted and peered at the voting sheet. Mathias sat at his desk, glasses perched on his nose, reading and signing some papers. He won the vote and left.

A man with a patrician air, he voraciously reads history and often retreats to the Senate library to check one of the quotations he is fond of tossing into conversation, perhaps from the ancient Chinese, or from Senate legend Richard Russell.

Mathias still works on his farm near Frederick, Md., and much to the delight of Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), Mathias will sometimes "quote from the Farmers Almanac on what we think is some weighty and important issue."

Warner, who shares little of Mathias' ideology, but admires him nonetheless, said, "His rear-view mirror in life is history. So many times I have heard him bring up a vignette from the past to justify a stance taken today."

Last week, as an archivist sifted through decades of Mathias' memorabilia destined for the library at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the senator, in his office, sifted through his own memories.

He recalled his first breakfast at the White House, as a new member of Congress in 1960, where he was "amazed at President Eisenhower's depth of knowledge" compared with his more public portrait as a president always swinging a golf club.

Then there was the breakfast with Richard M. Nixon, just after Nixon's inauguration, at which the new president told Mathias, "Just wait, I have big plans . . . as far as China is concerned," Mathias recalled.

"And of course, he did," Mathias said about the president he opposed over Supreme Court nominations and delays in ending the Vietnam War. "He totally revolutionized our relations [with China] . . . . The tragedy of Richard Nixon is that he had great abilities in the field of foreign policy and long-range strategy. That was what was squandered in Watergate."

As to President Reagan, the senator took his usual side step, praising Reagan's "attitude toward the assassination attempt, his very cheerful acceptance of his fight with cancer," but adding, "You have to wait for history to assess the accomplishments of a president."

During his years in Congress, Mathias said, he had seen "terrible moments for the country" -- the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy's death and Watergate. "What gets you through is simply the realization that . . . there is no one else you can turn to and say, 'What do we do now?' This is where those answers have to be given."

There have been dark personal moments, too.

Last month, some of his oldest friends in the civil rights movement bitterly criticized him for his votes on the nomination of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, saying that Mathias supported Rehnquist on a key vote only to vote against his nomination when it was too late to matter.

But attorney Joseph Rauh, one of those critics, said last week that "one disagreement should not blur the magnificence of what he did over his full career. His record on civil rights is great."

Rauh was not at all surprised that Mathias spent his final hours in the Senate, before he sets off to practice law and teach, waging war on the death penalty.

Has Mathias made a difference from his often lonely place in the Senate?

"Well, that's really for others to say," Mathias mused last week. "But there have been occasions when someone needed to stand up and say stop, and on some of those occasions people have listened."


© 1986 The Washington Post Company