He served only one term in the U.S. Senate. He bore an illustrious surname in Maryland politics. Though born to wealth and privilege in Harford County, he was a relentless crusader determined to root out corruption in government, while often bucking his Democratic Party’s chieftains.
His career as a U.S. Senator ended after only one term because he fought relentlessly for gun control and civil rights and opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He faced consequences for charting his own course.
He was unafraid to argue strenuously in favor of controversial causes.
Joe Tydings died two weeks ago at the age of 90. His obituary, though lengthy in the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post, seemed spare in my opinion. He deserved front-page attention.
Of course, he left public office in 1971. His triumphs and battles were eclipsed by time.
Why do I mourn Joe’s death? When he ran for re-election, my mother was his volunteer statewide precinct chair. She blamed his loss on his strong stand in favor of gun control. Though he hunted all his life and offered common-sense proposals, the National Rifle Association (NRA) focused its sights on Joe Tydings and contributed mightily to his defeat.
It’s almost trite to write what we all know is true in our violent nation: the NRA is nearly an unstoppable political force that few national politicians seek to oppose, except at their own peril. Just look at Tydings’ short presence on Capitol Hill.
I recently finished reading Tydings autobiography, entitled My Life in Progressive Politics, Against the Grain. His words portray a man who practiced politics with stern determination, the consequences be damned.
If he smelled even a whiff of corruption or incompetent cronyism, he reacted strongly. The party partisans never forgot. Nor did his Republican foes.
President Richard Nixon became displeased because the Maryland senator strongly opposed his nominations of Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. and G. Harrold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nixon’s White House, according to Tydings in his autobiography, was responsible for instigating a smear article in Life magazine about alleged improper financial dealings by the senator on behalf of a friend’s construction company seeking government loans guarantees for projects in Latin America.
Though an investigation by the State Department later disproved these allegations, Tydings’ re-election campaign suffered a destructive blow.
Dirty tricks and rotten behavior still blemish American politics. Though many of us yearn for greater civility in our fractious nation, I think political combat, stretching back to our country’s embryonic years, has always involved unsavory behavior.
Competition breeds contempt. Truth is tenuous.
As U.S. Attorney for Maryland under President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, he transformed the office into an effective corruption-fighting machine. He gained convictions against a congressman and Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, both Democrats.
As a state delegate in the 1950s, he pushed for legislation regulating the savings and loan banks. Several delegates had connections to these lucrative banks and opposed Tydings’ reforms. These delegates were Democrats. He cared little about irritating the established party.
Joe was particularly close to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and devoted to his brother, the President. Their deaths, as well as the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination, helped motivate his futile efforts to regulate guns.
I last saw Tydings a few years ago at a fundraiser outside Easton for State Sen. Jamie Raskin, who was running for Congress. He was still bucking the establishment, to some extent, by supporting a liberal Democratic politician who had gained office as a state senator in eastern Montgomery County by beating a long-entrenched politician.
Sen. Tydings also had a local connection to Talbot County through his wonderful, devoted daughter, Mary Tydings Smith, who lives just outside Easton with her husband JT. Mary graciously brought me some months ago a signed copy of her father’s autobiography. The well-written book elicited memories of a time past when Joe Tydings was a central figure in state and national politics.
When he died nearly 50 years after leaving public office reluctantly, he had been long forgotten, except for those of us in our 70s and 80s. That’s too bad. He didn’t go along to get along.
He paid a political price for his fierce independence.
Joe Tydings’ public service didn’t end in 1971. He served for 15 years on the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents and as a member of the board of the University of Maryland Medical System. Never one to remain passive, he was a clear and constant voice for nurturing the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Joe Tydings was a stubborn fighter. He took pride in confronting the forces-to be. He was intrepid.
He served well.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.