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January 29, 2010

Goodbye, Mac

Roy Meachum

Charles “Chuck” Percy now stands alone. Together with Frederick’s Charles “Mac” Mathias, they once fought against polarization within their Republican Party. I knew them in Washington from reporting on Capitol Hill.


They were GOP senators who stood apart from Richard M. Nixon and Watergate crimes that forced his resignation. He believed the presidency was all-powerful. They lived their lives according to the principles laid down by the true founder of the Grand Old Party. They heard Abraham Lincoln’s promise of government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”


That was a liberal notion rapidly becoming completely foreign to Republican politics when I moved here from Bethesda nearly 27 years ago.


In the same month I started writing a Frederick column, Senator Percy was defeated in a very close race; he lost to Paul Simon, not the singer, but a lawyer. Six years before, in 1978, Mr. Percy appeared so invulnerable that the Illinois Democratic Party could not field a candidate against him.


On the national scene, going into the 1984 election, he was considered in trouble. From his role as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he constantly stressed his independence from President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to make their GOP more conservative.


In particular Mr. Percy’s insistence on an even-hand in dealing with Israel and its Muslim neighbors made him a high priority target for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). A few weeks before the voting he appeared on television and tearfully asked for another term, saying he heard the public’s anger.


He could have saved his breath.


Pro-Reagan conservative elements within his own party joined with AIPAC and Democratic voters in showing Senator Percy the door. The vote was squeaky tight. He lost.


My column had run for several months when I ran into “Mac” Mathias here; he remembered my time on television. We talked about our meetings in Washington. In our conversations, he demurred about chances for his re-election in 1986; not committing to run again or backing out.


More so than his Illinois colleague, the Frederick native earned the blazing ire of his party’s rightwing. He not only fought for equality for this country’s African Americans but strongly opposed the GOP’s “Southern Strategy.” The tactic wooed Democrats by emphasizing their national party’s role in enforcing Civil Rights. The proponents of segregation, which included the majority of white Southerners, happily switched.


To the point, Mr. Mathias, as city attorney, had encouraged opponents of the Opera House movie theatre’s policy of restricting blacks to the balcony.


There were other major issues on which he was perceived as a “disloyal” Republican. Joining with Mr. Percy to fight for the Illinois senator’s law for fair housing is an example. I did not know at the time how the Fredericktonian was shoved aside from heading the Senate Judiciary Committee chair by South Carolina’s Sen. Strom Thurmond, a prime example of the effectiveness of the GOP’s Southern Strategy.


With so much turbulence and vitriol around him and minding what happened to his friend from Illinois, the Frederick native quietly announced withdrawal from the next race; Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski moved up to the Senate.


I once wrote that Charles Mathias and Charles Percy almost converted me to join their party. It’s a good thing I didn’t. They were among the last to regard the Republican “tent” as large enough to encompass free speech that could differ from the party leaders.


The GOP National Committee is meeting this week, in Hawaii, to hammer out who may call himself a Republican and receive funding from the party. Wannabe candidates would have to swear allegiance to a number of requirements to be certified, among them abortion and raising taxes. I’m sure both former stalwarts of Mr. Lincoln’s party in the Senate would flunk. Although the former Maryland senator’s great-great-grandfather ran on the GOP ticket opposing slavery, headed by Mr. Lincoln, in 1860.


The last time I shook hands and swapped smiles with Mac Mathias was on the 25th anniversary of the founding of Community Commons, on the Monocacy Battlefield. We were not friends but friendly allies in the same cause: an America that meets its obligation to all citizens, regardless of race, creed or ethnic origin. The very opposite of that Republican Party that would demand a litmus test to join.


Goodbye, Mac. You are missed.


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