By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – Charles “Mac” Mathias will soon return to the Capitol — but not to rejoin a Congress that the former senator from Maryland sees as increasingly contentious.
“I’m going to take a group of students from (the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies) up to the dome of the Capitol. I do that every spring,” said Mathias, who stepped down in 1986 after a 26-year career in the House and Senate.
The respected Frederick Republican said his Hopkins group will talk about current events and history and then “do some exploring.” He gives the same tour to the legal interns who come to work each summer at his D.C. firm.
While he feels that people in government today “simply do not want to get together,” Mathias said the young people he meets on his Capitol tours and elsewhere give him hope for the future.
“They have a good deal of optimism,” he said. “They have wide knowledge of the world, and I think that they will do a better job.”
A better job, he hopes, than the current officeholders.
Mathias, who attended one day of the impeachment trial, called it a “very sad, sad experience” that showcased increased partisanship and cast both the president and Congress in a negative light. While he believed the president was guilty, he thought the impeachment process should have been stopped earlier for the good of the nation.
“I enjoyed every day I spent in Congress (as a member) and felt very honored to be there,” he said, “but I didn’t have any regrets about missing this particular episode.”
It’s a very different Congress than the one Mathias walked away from.
“I think there’s been a decline in the civility in the Congress, and I think civility … was and is a hallmark of Mac Mathias,” said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Baltimore.
“He was a very reasoned and thoughtful voice on public policy and commanded wide respect because of that,” Sarbanes said.
Over his career, Mathias built a reputation as a staunch defender of civil rights and environmental causes. By the time he retired, he often found himself far to the left of most other Republican lawmakers, leading many to ask why he did not leave the Republican Party as it moved farther to the right.
Mathias said he did not — and will not — switch, partly because he hopes his party swings back toward the center.
“I’ve always had the feeling that this movement of the parties is tidal, and it went out but it will come back in some day …. It’s taken longer than I expected,” he said.
Not everyone agrees that the tide will roll back in for moderate and liberal Republicans like Mathias. Developer Blair Lee IV, who writes about politics for the Montgomery Journal, sees the widening gap between the Democratic and Republican parties as a good thing.
“If your choice was between a Democrat and Mac Mathias, it wasn’t much of a choice,” Lee said. “There has been more polarization as Maryland moves toward what is hopefully a very healthy development, which is a two-party system.”
Lee said the change is worthwhile, even if it means a less civil Congress.
“There’s lots of animosity between Chevy and Ford, too. The competitive system is by far the best,” he said.
Lee spoke highly of Mathias, saying he “gave the party tremendous credibility …. He truly was a public servant.” Still, he said, “I don’t think you’re ever going to see the day again of Mac Mathiases being nominated by the Republican Party.”
Mathias would not be the first in his family to walk away from the GOP — his grandfather was a Republican who followed Theodore Roosevelt into the Bull Moose campaign of 1912. But those deep roots in the party — his father-in-law was a Republican governor of Massachusetts — also keep Mathias from leaving.
“The Republican Party … was the bulwark of the Union and was the shield for the rights of individual citizens,” he said. “It supported strong government so that there could be strong protections, and I think that should be the core of its activity today. I think there still is, among many Republicans … a feeling that that’s important.”
Mathias largely left politics behind when he left Congress 12 years ago. He concentrates now on his job in the Washington office of Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue, a law firm.
The 76-year-old Mathias drives into work every day from his home in Chevy Chase and said he has no plans to stop working full-time.
“The day after I left the Senate, I reported for duty in this office,” he said in a recent interview, crisply decked out in a dark suit, blue-and-white- striped shirt and red patterned tie. “I think it’s good for you to stay moving.”
Mathias has done just that, focusing his work for several years on the liquidation of First American Bankshares Inc., which federal regulators ordered sold in 1991 after learning it was secretly owned by the scandal-ridden bank BCCI.
“We’re now trying to get all the assets liquidated so that the depositors who have lost money can be reimbursed,” Mathias said.
He jokingly said his life now is one of “unremitting toil,” including frequent business trips to Europe. But it is “not the best kind of travel,” he said: “You go to London or Paris, and you are there for 24 hours, and you see a room no different from this room, and then you go back to the airport.”
Because he enjoys the students and the tours of the Capitol so much, Mathias said, he would like to try teaching someday. He would also like to write a book. But he seems to have very little time to spare.
Mathias said he also wants to pass along more of his experiences to his two grandchildren, who live nearby. He said they are still too young to hear about his 26-year congressional career, but he looks forward to telling them about it someday.