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Joe Tydings’ lessons from then and now

Fraser Smith Big

Ex-U.S. Sen. Joe Tydings was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but within a few years he was blessed with a table setting of good fortune, political as well as financial.

His adoptive grandmother, Marjorie Merriweather Post, founder and principal shareholder of the General Foods Corp., was one of the wealthiest women in the nation.

His adoptive father, Sen. Millard E. Tydings of Maryland, immersed him in political life at the highest level.

On his own, Tydings established friendships with the Kennedys, Jack and Bobby. He worked with both during the 1960 presidential election.  They would be his political friends and advisers.

At the beginning of his autobiography, “My Life in Progressive Politics: Against the Grain,” Tydings recalls a party for President Kennedy at Oakington, the Tydings family’s  550-acre farm near Havre de Grace.

For decades, Tydings says, presidents, vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries and others came to visit. The U.S. Senate came every year, half of the members on one Saturday, half the next.

During one of these Oakington gatherings, Tydings found himself talking politics with President Kennedy. But now the question was Tydings’ political future.

At his request, Tydings was appointed U.S. attorney for Maryland in 1961. This would mark one of the first and most dramatic examples of Tydings running against the grain. Democratic Party leaders had their own favorite son for that post. Tydings prevailed.

He later successfully prosecuted three Democratic Party leaders. Three years later, ahead of his own schedule, he ran for U.S. Senate, once again to the consternation of party leaders who favored Louis L. Goldstein, later to become comptroller of Maryland. Tydings trounced Goldstein and easily defeated the Republican incumbent, James Glenn Beall.

Answer to a question

Tydings’ had run in 1964 on a promise never to duck the hard ones. He  continued to oppose his party and others on important issues – eventually against his political best interests, as he concedes in his book.

One of these issues – guns – put him at odds with the National Rifle Association. Here, the Tydings’ story illustrates the old saw about how the more things change, the more they stay the same. When he stood for re-election to the Senate in 1970, Tydings became the poster boy for political races illustrating the power of the gun lobby.

The Washingtonian Magazine offered a somewhat humorous summation of the situation:

“In this year of Spiro Agnew, Can a Kennedyite Liberal, Unloved by the Party Pros, Hated by the Gun Lobby with only Good Looks, a Famous Name, Guts and $2,581,520 (in his campaign war chest), Win Re-election to the U.S. Senate and Grow Up To Be Vice President … Why Not?”

Among his opponents in the election were the aforementioned Agnew, the former Maryland governor who was then vice president, and President Richard Nixon. Tydings had opposed the Vietnam War and he spoke out against two of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees.

The first-term senator went into the race against Republican J. Glenn Beall Jr., the son of the man he had vanquished six years earlier, with confidence, but he ended up with a long list of enemies and critics. If all of that were not enough, Life magazine published a story suggesting that Tydings had used his office to help a Florida insurance company. Tydings says he had done nothing wrong, but Life persisted — possibly, Tydings believes, under pressure from the Nixon White House.

All of this turned out to answer the Washingtonian’s “Why Not” question.

Tydings answers that question today in his book written with John W. Frece, (my friend and former Baltimore Sun colleague):

As he walked to the Belvedere Hotel to make his concession speech, Tydings said, he wondered if he should have shown more restraint.

“I lost that election myself,” he says. “I took on too many issues, and I thought I was stronger than I was.”

Success in politics and in life – whatever advantages you may have at the start – comes down to your own judgment.

‘Honorable profession’

To his grandchildren and young people in general, he says near the end of the book, by all means fight for what you believe in. Rage against the dying of the light, as the poet says, but find a measured approach.

His observations of current public life suggest the instinct for public service may become a relic of the past. Money has replaced citizen engagement. Winner take all, hyper-partisan politics has replaced compromise and problem-solving.

Not the Tydings model, to be sure. Reminding us of our calling to democracy, Tydings, now 90, the lifelong progressive, assertive member of official boards of directors and crusading, anti-death penalty  lawyer, appeals for a re-kindling of the spirit underpinning our nation.

In urging a new generation of citizens to become engaged in civic life, he laments the political language of those who have repeatedly slandered what he calls the “intrinsically honorable profession of political service.”

“My Life in Progressive Politics: Against the Grain.” By Joseph D. Tydings with John W. Frece, Texas A&M University Press College Station, 361 pages.

C. Fraser Smith, a writer in Baltimore, is a former Daily Record columnist.

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