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Mac Mathias, keeper of the flame

Mavericks have seen a bit of a comedown recently. Their independence has had a kind of PR cast, as if the image of independent was more political theater than reality.

And even if accurate, the maverick thing looks thin compared to real independence.

We may consider the degree to which things have changed with the passing of former senator Charles McC. “Mac” Mathias.

Some have called him a maverick. He would think of himself as faithful to his Republican roots. Most of the herd had gone maverick while he stood confidently on home ground.

He was not above compromise. But he wasn’t running to build party or to be re-elected.

He liked to quote the English philosopher and political leader, Edmund Burke, who dared to instruct his constituents: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Then, smiling perhaps, he might say, “I would point out that Edmund Burke was defeated at the next election.”

Beyond orthodox

He might have been speaking of himself. In an atmosphere like today’s — one which brooks no variance from the party line — he would be beyond unorthodox.

In the mid-1980s, when the tenor of the national GOP was swinging sharply to the right, another Maryland Republican referred to him as that “liberal swine.”

The denunciation followed a number of maverick Mathias moments. He was a Republican who managed to win high office in one of the strongest of Democratic states. He won four terms in the House and three in the Senate.

Mathias, who died Monday after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, ran the way many successful Republicans have run in Maryland. His party was always outnumbered, so he courted Democrats, appealing to them on certain issue. You couldn’t tell his party affiliation by looking at his campaign literature. He was actually a member of his own party, the Mathias party.

He was, of course, a liberal, a virtually extinct breed in today’s GOP.

He held firmly to views that were increasingly dangerous for those who prized party and re-election over principle. He earned a spot on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. He marched with protesters at the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit when the party walked away from its pro-life position.

He was a civil rights leader when his party, the party of Lincoln, was adopting the so-called Southern Strategy, which erased the party’s once-resolute stand against discrimination. He visited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when King was jailed in Selma, Ala.

No lock-step partisan

A commitment to justice and equality, he thought, was a bedrock Republican belief. He was more like a keeper of the old flame than a maverick.

As a boy, he watched as a statue of Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney was installed in front of the courthouse in Frederick. The young man had no idea, of course, who Taney was or that he written something called the Dred Scott Decision. The black man had no rights a white man was obliged to respect, Taney wrote, quoting the Founders.

Rather than condemn Taney out of hand, Mathias wondered later in life about the cross currents of thought and culture that must have buffeted the man who had been a slave owner and man of the law.

Mathias saw another approach in his own father, who made sure the family gardener, Tom Clark, a former slave, was allowed to vote in Frederick, where Mathias was born and grew up.

As a young lawyer — city solicitor in Frederick — he urged the town fathers to end segregation at movie theaters. He and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the civil rights leader from Baltimore, were allies. Later, he worked with her husband, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the lobbyist for the NAACP in Washington.

When a Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, failed to offer a civil rights bill, Mathias and two other Republicans, John Lindsay of New York and William McCullough of Ohio, sponsored what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Mac Mathias was anything but a lockstep partisan. He would have been offended by ersatz mavericks. He was a leader, a man of conviction who tried to steer his party and the nation toward justice.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears weekly in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.