By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; A01
Charles McC. Mathias Jr., 87, a three-term U.S. senator from Maryland who often clashed with his fellow Republicans over court nominations, the Vietnam War and social issues and was one of the last unabashed Senate liberals in the GOP, died Monday at his home in Chevy Chase. He had Parkinson's disease.
Sen. Mathias was elected first to the House of Representatives in 1960 as a moderate Republican, but he soon found himself out of step with a party that was moving increasingly to the right. During his four terms in the House, he helped sponsor civil rights legislation, called for a halt to U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and mapped out a political direction built, in his words, on principle rather than political expediency.
When he ran for the Senate in 1968, he took bold stances that were often at odds with the prevailing views of his party. He opposed the Vietnam War and supported an array of progressive ideals, including racial reconciliation, campaign finance reform and D.C. home rule. He defeated the Democratic incumbent, Daniel B. Brewster, and for many years remained one of Maryland's most popular political figures, even though Republicans were vastly outnumbered in the state.
Sen. Mathias publicly supported the presidential candidacy of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and 1972, but he was also one of Nixon's most nettlesome opponents from either party. During Sen. Mathias's first term, he voted against a missile system proposed by the administration, advocated a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and marched with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. He supported his Republican colleagues only 31 percent of the time during his first term and compiled a voting record more liberal than those of most Democrats.
He was praised on the Senate floor by a nominal political opponent, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), as "the conscience of the Senate."
In 1969, Sen. Mathias criticized what he called the Republican Party's "Southern strategy" of racial divisiveness and further angered the White House by speaking out against the nomination of Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. to the Supreme Court.
"The only conclusion to which I can bring myself," Sen. Mathias said, "is that his confirmation would lower all judicial standards at a time when the public is anxious to see them raised."
After the Senate rejected Haynsworth's nomination, Sen. Mathias helped lead the opposition to Nixon's next nominee, G. Harrold Carswell, who was also denied a seat on the high court.
On Feb. 25, 1970, after a year in the Senate, Sen. Mathias delivered a dramatic and influential speech denouncing U.S. military incursions into Laos, charging that the Nixon administration was risking a "repetition of the mistakes of our Vietnamese involvement."
The blistering criticism from a Republican put the White House and the Pentagon on the defensive, and it bolstered Senate disapproval of the Vietnam War. Congress adopted a resolution proposed by Sen. Mathias to restrict a president's authority to send troops overseas without congressional permission.
In 1972, soon after the Watergate burglary was exposed and two years before an embattled President Nixon resigned, Sen. Mathias was among the first Republicans to condemn the scandal and call for an investigation. At first, he thought Nixon was not involved in the burglary and campaigned for his reelection in 1972. But as evidence of White House complicity grew stronger, Sen. Mathias took a firmer stance.
"Watergate is the turning point in our nation's history," he said in 1973. "If we turn our backs to the grievous attacks that have been made on the Constitution and the laws of the land under the vague incantations of one man's view of national security, we will have lost our right to hold the precious gift of freedom won for us almost 200 years ago by men of courage, integrity and intelligence."
Sen. Mathias's political career, however, was not defined solely by his opposition to the Nixon administration and the conservative wing of the Republican Party. He traveled to Selma, Ala., in 1965 to meet Martin Luther King Jr. and helped draft an open-housing law prohibiting racial discrimination.
Sen. Mathias was an early environmental advocate who proposed legislation to protect the Chesapeake Bay, Antietam National Battlefield and Assateague Island. He was the primary sponsor of the bill that created the C&O Canal National Historical Park.
He sought to end the congressional seniority system, proposed that members of Congress disclose sources of outside income and led efforts to limit the influence of money in politics. In 1971, Congress passed his Election Campaign Act, the first major campaign-finance reform bill in years.
"No problem confronting our nation today is greater than that of our steadily eroding confidence in our political system," Sen. Mathias said. "This erosion of confidence results from undeniable evidence that our current political campaign process -- relying on big money and secrecy -- corrupts our principles, our leaders and ourselves."
Charles McCurdy Mathias Jr. was born July 24, 1922, in Frederick and was known as "Mac" throughout his life. He graduated from Frederick High School in 1939 and spent a year at a prep school in Pawling, N.Y., before entering Haverford College in Pennsylvania. In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent for additional study to Yale and Columbia universities. Haverford counted the Navy courses as credits and awarded him a bachelor's degree in 1944.
During World War II, he served on a communications ship in the Pacific and, after the war, inspected the atomic-bomb damage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. From that point on, he was skeptical of the unchecked use of nuclear arms.
He graduated from the University of Maryland's law school in 1949 and returned to Frederick to practice law. As the city attorney from 1954 to 1959, he helped desegregate the Frederick opera house. He was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1958 before his successful run for Congress two years later.
The Mathias family had been immersed in Republican politics for generations. Sen. Mathias's great-grandfather served in the Maryland legislature in the 1860s, and his grandfather was a state senator who campaigned with Theodore Roosevelt. When the future senator was a boy, his father took him to the White House to meet presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
Sen. Mathias came from a venerable tradition in which Republicans were called the party of Lincoln. Refusing to yield in his views or to surrender his party affiliation, he took liberal positions on race, abortion and military spending. But as conservatives became the dominant Republican voice, he lamented the direction of his party and tried to carve out a liberal corner with a few other senators, including Jacob K. Javits (N.Y.), Charles H. Percy (Ill.) and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (Conn.)
"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," Sen. Mathias said in 1971.
In 1974, he defeated the then-little-known Barbara A. Mikulski (D) to win reelection but faced mounting opposition from his party's right flank. In the Senate, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) led a conservative maneuver to deny Sen. Mathias his expected position as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. Thurmond later abolished a subcommittee that Sen. Mathias chaired.
During his 1980 reelection campaign, Sen. Mathias distanced himself from presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, and the senator's advertising didn't mention that he was a Republican. Conservatives denounced the senator as a "communist," "traitor" and "baby killer," and a Republican leader in Baltimore publicly called him "a liberal swine." Nonetheless, Sen. Mathias was reelected with 66 percent of the vote.
"I'm not all that liberal," he said in 1974, describing his political views. "In fact, in some respects, I'm conservative. A while ago, I introduced a bill preserving the guarantees of the Bill of Rights by prohibiting warrantless wiretaps. I suppose they'll say it's another liberal effort, but it's as conservative as you can get. It's conserving the Constitution."
Many of Sen. Mathias's opponents found him likable, and he was widely admired for his humor and common sense. He often arrived at the Senate cloakroom in work clothes after doing morning chores on his farm near Charles Town, W.Va., and was notorious for driving rattletrap station wagons. He was a well-read student of history who often quoted from writers and statesmen.
During his final term, Sen. Mathias was chairman of the Senate rules committee. He announced his retirement in 1985 was succeeded the next year by Mikulski, who still holds the seat.
In retirement, Sen. Mathias practiced international law with the firm of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue and sat on many committees and boards. In the 1990s, he was assigned by a court order to oversee the dissolution of First American Bankshares after the Bank of Credit and Commerce International banking scandal.
In 2002, Sen. Mathias announced his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and in 2008 he wrote an article for The Washington Post endorsing the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Ann Bradford Mathias of Chevy Chase; two sons, Charles B. Mathias and Robert F. Mathias of the District. Other survivors include a sister, Theresa M. Michel of Frederick; a brother, Edward Trail Mathias of Baltimore; and two granddaughters.
Describing the future of the Republican Party in a 1996 interview with the Baltimore Sun, Sen. Mathias said: "I'd like to think there would be a place for Abraham Lincoln, a place for Theodore Roosevelt, a place for Dwight D. Eisenhower. If there's a place for them, I'd like to think I could find a small niche."