The last liberal in GOP? Conscience: The former Republican senator would like to think his party still has room for moderates like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt -- and him.


Republicans of marginally different types are gathering in San Diego this week for their party's convention, but to find that rarest of all Republicans -- the liberal -- it is necessary to go to the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at the Johns Hopkins University.

Not to the stacks, where there are, of course, mountains of books on liberal Republicans of yesteryear, such as Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Today's quarry is very much alive, though his species is very nearly extinct.

Emerging from a reading room and looking very much a distinguished statesman is the man the press once regularly referred to as the "conscience of the Senate." He often was called other things as well, most notably by leaders of his own party. Richard Nixon put him on his enemies list. Ronald Reagan once said he was not a real Republican. The Conservative Caucus proposed that he be thrown out of the GOP altogether, even if such a step would have cost the Republicans majority control of the Senate.

Electoral balm

But Maryland's Charles McC. (Mac) Mathias never much cared. "Did you look at my election results?" he is asking now in an uncharacteristic display of boastfulness. "They provided the balm that eased all the pain incurred from the criticism."

The criticism hurt, then?

"No, not terribly," he allows.

Today he is pawing through his old papers, which he donated to Hopkins when he left Congress in 1986 after 26 years. He is thinking of writing about events from his early years in Washington. He has been working in a basement room in the library, but now seeks out the daylight and a spot on the main floor overlooking the campus. Students in shorts and carrying knapsacks saunter by as he settles into a vinyl-covered chair in front of the windows. None recognize him. Probably few have even heard of this Republican who opposed the war in Southeast Asia, supported civil rights and championed the Chesapeake Bay.

Mathias is completely white-haired now and dressed, well, conservatively, in a gray plaid suit. Only the pandas on his tie hint at a familiar impishness. His voice is soft, nearly inaudible, and his hands shake slightly, the result of a 10-year struggle with Parkinson's disease.

But he emphasizes that he is only retired from the Senate, not from active life. At 74, he is still practicing law in Washington. Currently he is chairman of First American Bankshares, helping to direct its dissolution in the wake of the BCCI banking scandal. He travels often on business, and soon will head off to London.

Whether he will be back in time for the Republican convention, he does not know. He never had any intention of attending. He well knows that his party is even less receptive to his kind than they were in his heyday.

"I'd like to think there would be a place for Abraham Lincoln," he says, "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."

He pauses for a moment before continuing: "I cannot accept the fact that the party has changed so drastically that there isn't a place for moderate Republicans, but I'm realistic that it isn't a very large space."

In Mathias' mind, a successful convention would be one that accepts a "broad centrist platform" without a great deal of controversy. But he knows that a centrist platform won't be possible without controversy this year. He knows a centrist platform probably won't be possible at all.


He recalls that he and Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, started in the House of Representatives the same day in 1959 and in the U.S. Senate the same day in The two were together all those years, yet, when asked, he cannot remember any personal anecdotes.

Dole, Mathias says dryly, "is very steady, very dependable," and he expects to vote for him.

Dole reportedly tried to dissuade Mathias from retiring from the Senate with an offer to chair a major committee. Dole was supposedly worried that Republicans would lose majority control Mathias' seat fell to a Democrat, which is exactly what happened. Mathias says he doesn't remember such a conversation with Dole. The chairmanship, of course, should have been his five years earlier, when Republicans first regained control of the Senate, but party regulars conspired to deny it to him. By 1986, it was too late.

Since Mathias left, his party has veered even further to the right, as moderating influences like him have slowly vanished. Their disappearance, Mathias says, contributes to logjams on Capitol Hill.

"The lesson of the history is that there needs to be some hybridization to allow ideas to get passed," he says.

He still has opinions about the issues of the day. On the welfare bill passed this month by Congress, he notes, "Mandating people to go to work isn't helpful when you haven't at the same time mandated the creation of jobs for them." On health care, he grouses that nobody seems interested anymore in ensuring that the miracle of medical science gets to more people. "We shouldn't be looking at it as some sort of burden, some sort of a tax, but a great opportunity."

He remains unapologetically liberal. "Some of our most cherished concepts are the result of liberal thought," he says. "It's ironic that the whole concept of private property is one of the liberal ideas. It was a major element in the French Revolution."

Politics today, Mathias says, is somewhat different from when he practiced it. The electronic media is far more dominant and the reliance on money much more crucial in campaigns. Nevertheless, if he were 45 years younger, he believes he'd be drawn to politics again.

But drawn as a liberal -- perhaps the last person in America willing to own up to it.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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