When Public Service Was Still an Honorable Pursuit

The afternoon seemed as much a celebration of Joe Tydings’ new autobiography, his life and legacy, and his 90th birthday, as it did the near-final flicker of a storied time gone by, a time of possibility and promise, of hope and enthusiasm, all a generation before the nation began to fade finally into its current age of gracelessness.

 

For one, brief shining moment, as the songwriter would tell us, 80 or so citizens who gathered recently at the University of Maryland College Park’s alumni center heard about a time in these United States when public service was still an honorable pursuit, when ideals still shaped the future, and when our collective social conscience still endeavored to temper the sometimes soulless role of government.

 

The session was anything but a melancholy occasion; it was at times hysterically funny, rather than some sort of lament for the past. Yet, the late-afternoon affair was a poignant reminder of an era that seems now so impossibly long ago.

 

It was as if Tydings – former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, once the state’s former top federal prosecutor and U.S. senator, a protégé of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy — had summoned family, friends and hangers-on to come on over, laze in his living room and share tales of the political past.

 

Tydings sat on stage and used a microphone, flanked by an emcee and ringmaster of sorts, former state Del. Timothy F. Maloney, who has known Tydings since he campaigned for Senate in Prince George’s County in 1964, and John W. Frece, a former Sun reporter who co-wrote the former senator’s new book, “My Life in Progressive Politics: Against the Grain.”

 

  

The book by Tydings and Frece, published late last month, adds to the woefully scant canon of 20th Century politics in Maryland. It is a quick and fascinating read.

 

Maloney, while a Democrat, is probably best described as a party-neutral political consigliere to many in the ruling class.

 

He would tee up the questions, and Tydings would respond in turn by slamming the answers down the fairway and, more often than not, beyond. At other times, Tydings simply played the straight man.

 

In a run-up to what seemed a perfect metaphor for the state of national politics, Maloney noted that Tydings’ step-grandmother, Marjorie Merriweather Post, had once built a mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., called Mar-a-Lago, now the more-than-occasional home of its current owner, President Trump.

 

Maloney pointed out the irony that Post, who was married to Joseph E. Davies, Tydings’ grandfather, had attempted to donate Mar-a-Lago to the federal government as a winter White House, but it was declined, because officials, he said, “found it way too ostentatious.”

 

Tydings then took over to say that the Davies family crest had been appropriated by the current owner, who had the word “Integritas” beneath the coat of arms ground out and replaced by the word, “Trump.”

 

“So, the Trump crest today at Mar-a-Lago is the Davies crest minus integrity?” Maloney asked.

 

“That’s right,” he replied.

 

‘See what you can do’ for Native Americans

 

Tydings told the assembled multitude of his days with the Kennedys – of running JFK’s Maryland campaign in 1960, of being the Kennedy-appointed U.S. attorney in Maryland when Bobby was attorney general, and of being RFK’s surrogate on the campaign trail during his 1968 bid for president.  

 

He talked of fighting the good fight with the shiny-brights, as the reformers were known then, against Maryland’s deeply entrenched Democratic machine of auld.

 

Tydings told the story of meeting with Bobby Kennedy just 10 days before he won the California primary, the last time he saw him, 10 days before he was murdered. The Maryland senator was on leave for 60 days, working the campaign trail in seven states as RFK’s surrogate, delivering the message far and wide through the Midwest.

 

They were in Nebraska, Tydings recalled, and he was ticking off a list of counties and towns on the upcoming swing, asking Kennedy if he had any particular message or personal regards he wanted delivered to local officials.

 

He asked specifically about O’Neill, the state’s so-called “Irish Capital,” population roughly 3,000, just about in the center of the nation. It is not far from what was colloquially then called “Indian country,” owing to the huge reservations on the other side of the nearby border with South Dakota.

 

But instead of discussing politics, Bobby Kennedy turned the focus to the downtrodden.

 

“‘Joe, look around, and see how they treat Native Americans here, and then when you get back in Washington, see what you can do for them,’” he quoted Kennedy as saying.

 

And just as he finished telling the tale, almost 50 years later to the day, Tydings became emotional at the thought of it.

 

“So help me, God, that’s a true story,” he said, choking back tears. “And that tells you a little bit about Robert Kennedy.”

 

Tydings quickly rebounded before and recalled another story – one, unlike the Nebraska tale, that is not in his book.

 

Three years after Tydings’ 1964 election, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, the Montana Democrat, dispatched him to the Ditchley Conference in Great Britain, an early think tank for policymakers to discuss international issues. It is in a magnificent mansion, situated on 140 acres of rural grounds, about 65 miles northwest of London.

 

Along with him were Bobby Kennedy, then a senator from New York, and Sen. Daniel B. Brewster, the senior senator from Maryland for most of the time Tydings served on Capitol Hill.

 

The conference in Britain was serious business, “a big deal,” Tydings pointed out, one where the luncheons were not black tie – but the dinners were.

 

At dinner on the third night, “I saw on the program there was going to be a discussion on GATT,” he recounted. “Well, I knew GATT was important, but I blanked on what GATT stood for. I just couldn’t remember what GATT stood for,”

 

Close to the end of dinner, he caught Kennedy’s eye and said discreetly, “What does GATT stand for? I’m drawing a blank. I can’t remember.”

 

Kennedy looked at him and, feigning incredulity, said, “ ‘I can’t believe this. The United States senator from Maryland telling me he doesn’t know what GATT stands for,’” Tydings recalled.

 

“I said, come on, Bobby, tell me what GATT stands for,” he said.

 

No dice.

 

Finally, dinner was finished, and the program about to get under way.

 

“After it gets started, Senator Kennedy gets up and says, ‘Mr. Chairman, I hesitate to intervene in the exact order of business here, but I notice we have GATT on the program, and we are very fortunate to have … in our audience, the United States Senate’s foremost expert on GATT, Senator Tydings,’

 

With that, he said, “The chairman of the dinner turns around and says, ‘Well, we can certainly move things forward a little bit. We are delighted to have Senator Tydings lead the discussions this evening on GATT.’ ”

 

Tydings was left with no alternative but to stand up and explain.

 

“Boy, did they get a chuckle out of that,” he said, to gales of laughter from the audience.

 

(For the record, GATT stood for General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.)

 

Among those in the audience for the Tydings tribute were former U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a friend who defeated Tydings in his 1976 primary bid to recapture his old Senate seat, Stephen H. Sachs, a former U.S. attorney for Maryland and state attorney general who was once a Tydings underling; and former state Del. Gerry L. Brewster, whose father was Sen. Danny Brewster.

 

A couple of times, Maloney passed down the microphone for a little audience participation, beginning with Sachs, who was one of a half-dozen top-flight lawyers hired by Tydings as his assistants, after being appointed in 1961 as Kennedy’s U.S. attorney for Maryland. A young Benjamin R. Civiletti, later the U.S. attorney general, was another.

 

Sachs recounted a story in the book of his latter-day chance meeting with someone he and Civiletti, as young assistant U.S. attorneys, had successfully prosecuted – former Maryland House Speaker A. Gordon Boone, who was convicted of mail fraud in the state’s first savings and loan scandal in 1964.

 

The scene was years later, at the annual Baltimore County Bar Association dinner, “always a raucous kind of affair,” Sachs noted, where “adult beverages” were consumed by some in great amounts.

 

Sachs, then the Maryland attorney general, was running for governor against William Donald Schaefer, and was working the room, looking for help anywhere he could find it. Across the way was Boone with a cluster of his buddies.

 

“I hadn’t seen Gordon Boone for 25 years — since his sentencing,” Sachs said. “He calls me over, and I went.

 

“He puts his arm around me, and he says to his cronies, ‘You know, this is Steve Sachs. He’s a helluva guy. He went on to become attorney general of Maryland,’ ” he said. “‘I was also prosecuted by Ben Civiletti, who went on to become the attorney general of the United States.’

 

“‘I’m what you call a class-act defendant,’ ” he quoted Boone as saying.

 

Amid snickers in the audience, Sachs keeps building his case.

 

“I’m nodding. I can’t wait to get away … but he doesn’t let me go, and he’s speaking to his buddies, and he says, ‘You know, Steve, I know it wasn’t you. And it wasn’t Ben. It was that no-good sonuvabitch Tydings,’ ” Sachs said.

 

“Now, I’m torn. Because I have a great deal of loyalty to my dear friend Joe Tydings. On the other hand, I’m a politician and there are a lot of people here whose votes I’m counting on,” Sachs said.

 

“And, I will confess, I did then say to Gordon, untruthfully, but tactfully, ‘You’re right, Gordon. It was that no-good sonuvabitch Tydings,’” Sachs said, to a roar of laughs.

 

“The main point, however, of the story … is that no one appreciates that story more than Joe Tydings,” he said.

 

‘The movement continues’

 

Maloney then called on Sarbanes.

 

He credited Tydings with pioneering the progressive movement for reform in Maryland, dating to 1961, when Kennedy appointed him U.S. attorney, and he turned his sights on routing out political corruption in the state.

 

“It really began with Joe,” Sarbanes said.

 

“This state had a strong Southern Democratic tradition, it had a labor tradition, which ran the other way, and it had a very significant … African American population,” he said. “It had a lot of political components that made up the … electorate.”

 

But when Kennedy was elected in 1960, “it was a new time,” he said. “A lot of young people … were really interested in getting into … progressive politics.”

 

“The Kennedys made Joe the U.S. attorney, and that began, in effect, the movement – and I think the movement continues,” he said.

 

There was a certain idealism attached to being a Kennedy Democrat, how the brothers somehow had inspired a generation of leaders and reformers.

 

History shows that Tydings and his flock were not naïve – well, maybe a little, at first — and not starry eyed about how the political game was played. It was hardball. Those boyos they faced knew how to throw it fast, low and inside.

 

And Tydings knew politics could be a blood sport.

 

He had seen the ugliness of it up close and personal, when his adoptive father, U.S. Sen. Millard E. Tydings of Maryland, was smeared by the goose-stepping followers of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (D-Wis.), the infamous “red baiter” with whom he had done battle.

 

The McCarthyites distributed a composite photograph of the elder Tydings embracing the former leader of the American Communist Party, just in time to taint the 1950 Senate race and help doom his reelection bid against John Marshall Butler, the Republican.

 

Joe Tydings had slugged it out, first as federal prosecutor, then as senator, but only for one term. He was done in by any number of factors – his opposition to the political machinery, his objection to the Vietnam War, his proposals for gun control, his liberal stands on civil rights.

 

Finally, what the National Rifle Association did not hit him with, the dirty tricks of the Richard M. Nixon White House did. He lost re-election in 1970 to J. Glenn Beall Jr., son of the man of the same name he had beaten in 1964 to take the Senate seat.

 

Eventually, Tydings returned to the practice of law and was appointed to the Board of Regents at his beloved alma mater, the University of Maryland College Park – three times in three different decades by three different governors – once as chairman.

 

After helping separate the University of Maryland Hospital from the university system and create what is now known as the University of Maryland Medical System, Tydings in 2008 was named to the UMMS board of directors, a position in which he continues to serve.

 

Joseph Davies Tydings was born to privilege, growing up on an estate in Harford County overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. Like the Kennedys, he was a member of the political class and, also like them, he understood the credo, borrowed from the Bible, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

 

It is that calling to public service that Tydings never really lost, despite the political stumbling blocks and setbacks.

 

In an epilogue to the book, he exhorts his nine grandchildren – and their generation – to follow that path to “help this wonderful country overcome the severe problems it currently faces.” He includes a litany of woes, topped by the overwhelmingly corrupting power of money in politics, and decries the narrow-minded and divisive policies of the right.

 

Yet, he offers “confidence for the future” in the short final chapter for the grandchildren, the next generation.

 

Choosing for the moment to ignore the malignancy of hyper-partisanship and nativism that has seized the Republic, he gathers around him those who have come to the book-signing in his honor. They look on as he blows out the candles on the sheetcake rolled in before him, almost as if the torch really has passed.

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William F. Zorzi
Bill Zorzi was a Baltimore Sun reporter and editor for nearly 20 years, focusing on government and politics. An Annapolis bureau veteran, he wrote a weekly column, “The Political Game” for the paper.Zorzi and another former Sun reporter, David Simon, are longtime collaborators on acclaimed television projects, including the HBO series, “The Wire,” and the HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero,” which dealt with an explosive housing desegregation case in Yonkers, NY.

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