By Max Holland
When Charles Mathias died on January 25, his death generated the kind of coverage one would predict for a three-term senator who was long a favorite of the mainstream Washington media. In addition to the obligatory coverage in his home state of Maryland, there were lengthy obituaries in The Washington Post and The New York Times, and both newspapers also noted his death in editorials, a sure sign of respect given their shrinkage.
The eulogies recounted Mathias’s positions on a slew of issues—civil rights, Vietnam, Supreme Court nominations, campaign finance reform—that put him at odds with either his party or the White House incumbent, and sometimes both. Curiously, however, none of the articles mentioned his service in 1975-76 on the Senate Select Committee to Study Intelligence Activities, more commonly known as the Church Committee. Nothing Mathias did in his 34 years of public service was more revealing of the man’s integrity and decency than his performance during this probe, which Mathias had been instrumental in bringing about.
In hindsight, and save for dissent over US involvement in Vietnam, no single event reflected the breakdown of the cold war consensus more than the Congressional investigations into the intelligence community in the mid 1970s. Unlike the controversy over the war, however, the season of inquiry on Capitol Hill threatened to do great and lasting damage to a cold war instrumentality that almost everyone recognized as necessary. One could argue that if the war’s critics were heeded, and Washington extricated itself from Vietnam, the United States would actually emerge in a better position to wage its policy of containment versus the Soviet Union. In contrast, few people were making the argument that the congressional investigations would lead to better intelligence. All the talk was in terms of exposing alleged wrong-doing and bringing the community—chiefly the CIA and FBI—to heel.