Charles McCurdy Mathias Jr.
U.S. senator, Maryland
Charles McCurdy Mathias Jr., 87, a three-term U.S. senator from Maryland who often clashed with his fellow Republicans over court nominations, the Vietnam War and social issues and was one of the last unabashed Senate liberals in the GOP, died Monday at his home in Chevy Chase. He had Parkinson's disease.
Sen. Mathias was elected first to the House of Representatives in 1960 as a moderate Republican, but he soon found himself out of step with a party that was moving increasingly to the right. During his four terms in the House, he helped sponsor civil rights legislation, called for a halt to U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and mapped out a political direction built, in his words, on principle rather than political expediency.
When he ran for the Senate in 1968, he took bold stances that were often at odds with the prevailing views of his party. He opposed the Vietnam War and supported an array of progressive ideals, including racial reconciliation, campaign finance reform and D.C. home rule. He defeated the Democratic incumbent, Daniel B. Brewster, and for many years remained one of Maryland's most popular political figures, even though Republicans were vastly outnumbered in the state.
Sen. Mathias publicly supported the presidential candidacy of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and 1972, but he was also one of Nixon's most nettlesome opponents from either party. During Sen. Mathias's first term, he voted against a missile system proposed by the administration, advocated a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and marched with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. He supported his Republican colleagues only 31 percent of the time during his first term and compiled a voting record more liberal than those of most Democrats.
He was praised on the Senate floor by a nominal political opponent, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), as "the conscience of the Senate."
In 1969, Sen. Mathias criticized what he called the Republican Party's "Southern strategy" of racial divisiveness and further angered the White House by speaking out against the nomination of Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. to the Supreme Court.
"The only conclusion to which I can bring myself," Sen. Mathias said, "is that his confirmation would lower all judicial standards at a time when the public is anxious to see them raised."
After the Senate rejected Haynsworth's nomination, Sen. Mathias helped lead the opposition to Nixon's next nominee, G. Harrold Carswell, who was also denied a seat on the high court.
On Feb. 25, 1970, after a year in the Senate, Sen. Mathias delivered a dramatic and influential speech denouncing U.S. military incursions into Laos, charging that the Nixon administration was risking a "repetition of the mistakes of our Vietnamese involvement."
The blistering criticism from a Republican put the White House and the Pentagon on the defensive, and it bolstered Senate disapproval of the Vietnam War. Congress adopted a resolution proposed by Sen. Mathias to restrict a president's authority to send troops overseas without congressional permission.
In 1972, soon after the Watergate burglary was exposed and two years before an embattled President Nixon resigned, Sen. Mathias was among the first Republicans to condemn the scandal and call for an investigation. At first, he thought Nixon was not involved in the burglary and campaigned for his reelection in 1972. But as evidence of White House complicity grew stronger, Sen. Mathias took a firmer stance.
"Watergate is the turning point in our nation's history," he said in 1973. "If we turn our backs to the grievous attacks that have been made on the Constitution and the laws of the land under the vague incantations of one man's view of national security, we will have lost our right to hold the precious gift of freedom won for us almost 200 years ago by men of courage, integrity and intelligence."