Vice President Joe Biden led hundreds of mourners Tuesday in remembering Charles McC. Mathias Jr., the former Republican lawmaker from Maryland who died last week at 87.
Senators, congressmen, diplomats and power brokers, present and past, joined family and former aides in honoring a man whose passing drew attention to a vanished breed: the liberal Republican.
Biden, a Democrat, described Mathias as "a great man" and mentor who taught him about "moral and political courage." In a capital less polarized than today, Mathias was known for independence and a willingness to cross party lines during a congressional career that spanned three decades.
Speakers recalled how, in the '60s, he championed landmark civil rights legislation and bucked his party in opposing the Vietnam war. In the '70s and '80s, he marched for women's rights with Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, called on Richard Nixon to tell the truth about Watergate and made an unsuccessful push for public financing of congressional campaigns.
"Oh, God, had he won," said Biden, eulogizing his former Senate colleague in the National Cathedral's soaring nave. "What a different country this would be if Mac had prevailed on campaign finance reform."
He described how Mathias braced him up, at a low point in Biden's personal life, during the long bus rides to and from President Lyndon B. Johnson's burial in the Texas hill country. LBJ's elder daughter, Lynda Robb, was among the dignitaries at the one hour and forty-five minute service for Mathias.
Mathias, said Biden, belonged to a small, bipartisan group that represented the "intellectual moral compass" of the Senate.
"His true North was always pointing to what was best for the people of Maryland, our country and the rest of the world," Biden said.
Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley led a delegation of Maryland officials, ducking out early to deliver his State of the State address in Annapolis. Former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes arrived with his son John, a congressman from Baltimore. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a pallbearer, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Rep. Donna Edwards and Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski rounded out the Democratic contingent.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Frederick, the state's sole Republican in Congress, and former Reps. Constance A Morella and Helen Delich Bentley were the only prominent home-state politicians from Mathias' party in attendance.
The funeral brought together former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who served with Mathias as a Republican House member in the 1960s, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and former Republican Sens. John Warner and Alan Simpson, as well as liberal Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd and Patrick Leahy, among others.
Colbert I. King, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post and former Mathias aide, recalled the Senate campaign of 1974, when Mikulski, then a Baltimore city councilwoman, challenged the incumbent.
"He ran against you," said King, addressing the woman who now holds Mathias' seat. The Republican refused to accept contributions greater than $100 and won easily. "How we managed to do that will not be told for fifty years, when we are all dead," King said.
His sons, Charles B. Mathias and Robert F. Mathias, described family life with "the slightly round man in a rumpled suit," as Robert put it, who grew trees on his Frederick farm from acorns gathered on the Capitol lawn.
"I often thought Dad was born 200 years too late," he said. "He could recite The Federalist Papers from memory."
But the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop of Washington, described Mathias as a man ahead of his time. "He was 'green' before 'green' became a word defining the environmental movement," said Chane, referring to Mathias' efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
The liberal bishop, echoing a theme by others, remembered how Mathias deplored "the political polarization that has made it so difficult to do the people's business in the Congress of the United States."
Afterward, Cardin remarked that Mathias --who advised him privately when Cardin was speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates -- "really was a calming influence. We could use more like him today."