By Adam Clymer
Charles McC. Mathias, a former United States senator from Maryland who as a liberal Republican clashed with the Nixon and Reagan administrations and who was called “the conscience of the Senate” by its Democratic leader, Mike Mansfield, died Monday at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 87.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said Ann Pincus, a family spokeswoman.
Civil rights legislation engaged Mr. Mathias throughout his Washington career, which included four terms in the House of Representatives, from 1961 to 1969, and three terms in the Senate before he retired in 1987.
Mr. Mathias, who was known as Mac, played a major role in drafting the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a subordinate to Republican leaders who provided the margin of victory in the House. He was a key supporter of later measures on voting and housing and of efforts to thwart Reagan administration efforts to roll back those victories.
Mr. Mathias won his first race for the House in 1960, criticizing his opponent as someone who voted with the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action. But his own voting record showed agreement with the organization’s positions 57 percent of the time in his House years and 69 percent in the Senate.
Still, he resisted labels. “I’m not all that liberal,” he told The Washington Post in 1974. “In fact, in some respects I’m conservative. A while ago I introduced a bill preserving the guarantees of the Bill of Rights by prohibiting warrantless wiretaps. I suppose they’ll say it’s another liberal effort, but it’s as conservative as you can get. It’s conserving the Constitution.”
However he described them, his votes, his vocal unhappiness with the growing conservatism of the Republican Party and his lack of support for Ronald Reagan cost him leadership positions. In 1979, Senator Strom Thurmond maneuvered to block Mr. Mathias from becoming senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee; Mr. Mathias instead got the gavel at the far less powerful Rules and Administration Committee.
His Senate colleague for many years, Paul Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, said Monday that while Mr. Mathias’s “most intense critics were within his own party,” nevertheless “Mac commanded enormous respect on both sides of the aisle.”
Mr. Mansfield’s accolade came in a debate on campaign finance legislation on Dec. 21, 1973. Mr. Mathias advocated public financing of campaigns and ceilings on contributions (measures enacted the next year). He said that in his 1974 campaign he would reject cash contributions, take no more than $100 from any individual, report every contribution and expenditure and voluntarily abide by spending ceilings passed by the Senate.
“I commend him for the example,” Mr. Mansfield said, adding, “He has become the conscience of the Senate.”
Mr. Mathias won re-election in 1974 with 57 percent of the vote in what was otherwise a year of Democratic landslides.
His first election, to the Senate had been closer, as he defeated Daniel Brewster, a Democratic incumbent who was a friend and former classmate at the University of Maryland Law School. Mr. Brewster had been an usher at Mr. Mathias’s wedding in 1958, and Mr. Mathias had been godfather to Mr. Brewster’s son.
It was a tough campaign, with Mr. Mathias calling his friend a “messenger boy” for labor and a mouthpiece for the Johnson administration. Mr. Mathias won with 48 percent of the vote in a three-way race. The next day he and his son Robert, then 7, drove to visit Mr. Brewster.
“He went to shake hands and move on with their friendship,” Robert Mathias said Monday. In a 1972 bribery trial, Mr. Mathias testified for Mr. Brewster as a character witness.
Mr. Mathias had praise for President Richard M. Nixon early in his administration but later tangled with the White House, opposing its “Southern strategy” to slow school desegregation and supporting legislation to curtail the war in Vietnam. He also opposed two of the administration’s Supreme Court nominations.
That led to hostility in the White House and talk of trying to run someone against Mr. Mathias. But by 1973, Watergate had enfeebled the administration and Nixon called for Mr. Mathias’s re-election, saying they shared “a commitment to good government.” Mr. Mathias had demanded that Nixon reveal the truth about Watergate.
Besides civil rights, Mr. Mathias worked at strengthening ties with Europe and supported legislation that cleaned up the Chesapeake Bay and gave home rule to the District of Columbia.
After leaving the Senate, Mr. Mathias practiced law in Washington. Besides his son Robert, he is survived by his wife, Ann Bradford Mathias; another son, Charles; two grandchildren; a sister, Theresa Mathias Michel, and a brother, Edward.
Charles McCurdy Mathias was born on July 24, 1922, in Frederick, Md. After entering Haverford College, he left in 1942 to enlist in the Navy, which sent him to Yale and Columbia before commissioning him as an ensign in 1944, the year Haverford awarded him a bachelor’s degree. He served in the Philippines and in the occupation of Japan before earning his law degree at Maryland.
Mr. Mathias flirted with the idea of an independent presidential run in 1976. In a 1974 campaign speech he quoted Burke’s 1774 letter to the Electors of Bristol: “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.”
After the applause, he added wryly, “I would point out that Edmund Burke was defeated at the next election.”
Then he insisted, “But it was still the right answer.”