This recollection of the gifted, mischievous political gadfly Tom Mathews, my splendid pal for 40 years, was written by his son, Tom Mathews Jr., shortly after Tom Sr.’s recent death at 96. It was a life worth remembering — Terence Smith
Tom Mathews 1921-2017
Grand Druid of Liberal Causes and Campaigns
by Tom Mathews Jr.
Sargent Shriver called him “My Peace Corps poet.” When Shriver sent Tom Mathews a lofty invitation to Camelot, saying, “Come as you are,” Mathews caught the first flight out of Utah and arrived in ski boots. His first job in Washington was to sell dubious reporters and a hostile Congress an idea that Dwight Eisenhower was calling “infantile” and Richard Nixon “an escape for cultists and draft dodgers.” A nimble shaper of words, images and liberal causes, Mathews never lost his faith in the art of the impossible. With a mountain man’s relish for high altitude and a river boat gambler’s sense of the odds, he worked the city’s halls of power, its smoke-filled steak houses and gossipy saloons, and all the best poker tables in town. And within a year, Time Magazine, Ike and Dick’s own court historian, was calling the Peace Corps John F. Kennedy’s “single greatest accomplishment.”
“For Tom, politics was always David against Goliath,” says Mark Shields, dean of liberal columnists and the PBS NewsHour, who tracked Mathews for more than 40 years. “He was the happiest of warriors, the best of companions, the most American of Americans–always standing with the little guy against the big guy.”
Over the decades that followed the Kennedy years, Mathews evolved from press secretary into the go-to guy for dozens of activist bands that grew into the country’s most powerful voices of liberal public interest advocacy: Common Cause, the National Organization for Women, Emily’s List, and Planned Parenthood; the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society; the Southern Poverty Law Center and ACLU; Greenpeace and Amnesty International, to name just a few.
“Tom had an uncanny talent for stirring outrage against injustice,” says Roger Craver, founding partner of Craver, Mathews & Smith, a consulting firm that grew over the decades from just the two of them to an outfit with more than 100 operatives. “His finely honed political skills, amplified by a cadre of press comrades who trusted his judgment, gave credibility to these percolating organizations at a time when few people had ever heard of citizen’s lobbies, environmental activists, or issues like reproductive rights.”
When a reporter for the New York Times once asked him to describe his portfolio, Mathews rubbed his hands cheerfully and said, “We are the bomb throwers.” He loved flame-throwing metaphors, but the hand behind them rarely blew his cool. He believed that the little guy, who could be a woman as surely as a man, occupied the vast center of American politics, not the free-fire zones of the far right and left.
“Mathews was an idealist in a cynic’s profession,” wrote Peter Goldman in Quest for the Presidency: the 1988 Campaign. “He and Craver dreamed for years of finding the perfect citizen candidate, a man or woman of the center left with a feel for issues, a history of independence, a winning television manner, and, most important of all, a center–a core of beliefs more important to him or her than getting elected.”
He first put the idea to John W, Gardner, President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, an elegant writer on leadership, psychologist, and man of conscience who broke with LBJ over Vietnam. “You’re crazy,” said Gardner, who had, all the same, taken his advice in forming Common Cause and hired him as the group’s Vice President. Four years later, he tried again with Congressman Morris K. Udall, a maverick Democratic from Arizona. Mo Udall looked like Abraham Lincoln without the beard and he agreed to walk the walk. He fell short to Jimmy Carter, but Craver Mathews & Smith made him a serious contender all the way to the Democratic National Convention. In 1980, Mathews flew to Boston to buck up Congressman John B. Anderson of Illinois, the freethinking Republican who had floundered through the primaries against Ronald Reagan. “A shattering concept,” he thought, when Mathews promised to raise $14 million for him–but the idea would only work if he ran as an independent. Pulling himself together, Anderson bought the pitch, got the $14 million, then blew it that November. But Mathews didn’t give up.
In 1988, with Reagan on the way out and no one of equal throw weight in sight to the right or left, Mathews flew to New York to sip a Coke with Bill Moyers When he said, “Bill, I’m here to tell you that you should be running for President. Now,” Moyers said, “I’ve been thinking about it myself.” But what would the great mossbacks of the Democratic Party say. “Fuck ‘em,” Mathews replied. Conventional politics had become “fatuous.” Moyers, the citizen candidate of his dreams, nibbled, but in the end didn’t bite. “I’m not ready to be what you think I am,” he said. “I’m still on pilgrimage, still en route. I have not yet arrived to where I can move others.”
Mathews told friends that his only truly sad day in politics was managing the press aboard the funeral train that took Bobby Kennedy from Manhattan to Union Station in D.C. He felt philosophical about Moyers, the big one that got away. The thing that disturbed him most was the growing strength of right-wing political leaders and movements after they started using the same tools Craver Mathews & Smith had perfected on the left. From out of the ruins of the GOP came a citizen candidate who was, if nothing else, not Bill Moyers. “Donald Trump tested even Tom’s optimism,” said Terence Smith, once of the New York Times, CBS News and PBS. “Nothing else did.”
Thomas Richard Mathews, born August 1, 1921, in Salt Lake City, Utah, drew his activist genes from the Mormon Conquest, the Roaring ‘Twenties and the Great Depression. The first Mathews to reach Zion was a miner from Wales who fell in with early missionaries and gave up digging coal, singing all the way home and drinking himself to sleep every night. He then found himself shipping out of Liverpool, catching a riverboat up the Missouri, and transferring to a Conestoga wagon across the Great Plains. He wound up cutting stone for Brigham Young’s new Mormon Temple. For a while, the Mathews family produced good Mormons. Then they didn’t.
Tom was the first son of a Jack Mormon named Wesley Chase Mathews, who smoked Camels, guzzled coffee, and drank whisky like a fish. He boxed for a time as Kid Salt Lake. For a dive he took as a featherweight in San Francisco, he was paid five bucks and enough Hershey bars to see him home. He later ran a Union Pacific track gang. At night, backlit by the whorehouses of Wendover, Wes and his crew from the International Workers of the World would stagger back to their tents trading policy ideas like: “You tell me one goddam thing the goddam Republicans ever done for the goddamn working man.”
One day toward the end of World War I, he rode into Salt Lake to get a dynamite license and buy a truckload of TNT. In the basement of the old City and County Building, a tower of stone with its moon-face clocks and a courtroom where the Copper Bosses railroaded Joe Hill, Edith Alm processed the forms for a bouquet of Red Rose nitro and a box or two of blasting caps. She was Swedish: blonde, beautiful, and not a Mormon. Irresistible. After a high-octane courtship, he persuaded Miss Alm to loan him her life savings, which he invested in a Model T at the dealer’s discount and then sold at full price to a Madam out in Magna. With the $200 profit, he bought a diamond ring for Edith. His son also developed a distain for conventional finance. “You can always find money,” he was fond of saying. “The important thing is to keep your nerve.”
Wes and Edith married in 1918 and had three children: Tom, his brother Dick, and his sister Peggy, all of them raised on their Pop’s three-part code of parenting: (1) Every man has the right to go to hell in his own handbasket; (2) Pay all poker debts first, but don’t forget your grocery bill; (3) Never point a gun at a man unless you mean to kill him. Before he was out of short pants, Mathews was delivering newspapers. He once took the dare of a carnival geek and bit the head off a chicken for a quarter because his mother needed the money back home. Later, he bussed tables at the Rainbow Rendezvous ballroom, siphoning dregs and selling refilled bottles to Mormon backsliders so dumb they couldn’t tell good gin from bad anyway. He skied the purer slopes of the Wasatch Mountains, climbed its crags, and fished its pocket water, shot ducks and pheasants in its shadows. He was first in his family to go to college, where he wrote short stories and poems, keeping one eye on the style of Scott Fitzgerald and the other on the substance of Wallace Stegner. In 1942 he graduated from the University of Utah, where Stegner taught. In Zion’s city of the Saints, owned and run by LDS Republicans, he made his own witness and registered as a Democrat.
Up at the U, he met an elfin radical named Bonnie Johnson who was paying her way through college as a carhop, delivering burgers and shakes on roller skates at Fred and Kelley’s Drive-In on State Street. Eager to keep one step ahead of Fred, who was a touchy-feely sort of boss, she accepted a call from Mathews, whose idea of a hot date was a four-hour hike up Lamb’s Canyon. When they got back, he staked her to a shake and a burger of her own at the posher A&W uptown. “I like you, Johnson,” he said, beating Fred’s time by a mile. They married just before Christmas and quite soon had a son they called Tommy Two; then a second son, Colin, who became Mayor of Virginia City up in Montana, trumping his old man, who always talked a good game but never held elective office. When a daughter arrived, they named her Anne, rechristened Anna Livia Plurabelle by her godfather, George Kittle, name-checking and outing her dad’s most artful secret: the shock of recognition that eventually drove Mathews to politics was the day it finally dawned on him that he’d never be another James Joyce.
His command presence was always bigger than his frame. He was skinny as a green aspen when World War II broke out. He served in the 10th Mountain Division, a legendary outfit with a red, white and blue shoulder patch flaunting a ski crossed with a bayonet. Its recruits were drawn from the ranks of reckless young skiers and rock climbers who’d made their bones long before chairlifts and the definition of extreme sport was playing tennis without a net. The day he volunteered, he weighed in at 137 pounds; by standing on his toes, he made five foot seven. “Mathews,” roared a skyscraping Captain. “You’re too goddamn small. Next!” Undaunted, he snuck in as a muleskinner at Fort Sill, where he trained to hump the 10th Mountain’s 75mm Howitzers through the Apennines. After an unimpressed mule kicked his knee, reducing his value as a ground-pounder, he flew combat missions as a forward observer, directing artillery strikes from a tiny, unarmed Army Air Corps L-4, the military version of the Piper Cub. “I was a butterfly up there,” he said later, “floating, floating, floating,” tossed in the propeller wash of P-47 fighter-bombers.
In 114 days of blood-soaked combat, the 10th Mountain Division broke Hitler’s Gothic Line, driving the Germans into headlong a retreat across the Po River and all the way to the Alps. Along the way it lost 945 men killed in action. One morning, flying through a sky full of hotly popping flak, Mathews spotted the largest concentration of Germans he had ever seen, fleeing up the eastern shore of Lake Garda. “I hated those bastards, wanted to kill every one of them,” he recalled, adding that he later came to hate the Army for turning him into such an effective weapon. He radioed an air strike, but the American batteries refused to fire. When he landed in Verona, he leaped out the tiny cockpit of the L-4 and yelled, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” at an officer standing on the airstrip, who shot right back, “The war’s over.”
“You tell that to those Nazi sonsabitches up at Garda,” Lieutenant Mathews roared, pointing toward the Alps, where he’d come within one pop of dying on the last day of the war.
He never really recovered from what he had seen and done in Europe. Outwardly, he kept his best poker face. He made a game of passing himself off as a paisano, laughing at the way American soldiers thought that by adding a vowel to the end of every word they became instantly fluent in Italian. Landing his first a job as a reporter at the police shack of the Salt Lake City Tribune Telegram, he sold his souvenir Luger to a cop and splurged on a Chevvy Suburban Carry-All. “Load-o the truck-o,” he’d say, packing wife, kids, skis and a gallon of rot-gut for the ride up to Brighton and Mt. Millicent. “Andiamo. Sempre Avanti.” Let’s go. Never look back.
He rose quickly up the masthead from cub to culture editor of the Trib’s Sunday magazine, but the city’s religious and culture provincialism made him restless. On an assignment to do a story on Bing Crosby’s ranch in Elko, Nevada, he played cards with Scott Newhall, the executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, a smooth bandit from California who owned a cut-down piano and a thumping gutbucket and filled his house on Grizzly peak with jazz musicians. He also ran the most colorful newspaper in the West. Mathews hesitated when Newhall offered him a job, but after the Tribunes’ moss-bound editor ordered him to tone down a review panning the local ballet (“We’ve got to think of business, see the big picture. You know how hard they tried”) he quit, stuffed his family and a few suitcases in the Carry-All and lit out for Baghdad by the Bay.
San Francisco had everything Salt Lake City didn’t: Black people and Jews, writers, painters, poets, homosexuals, lesbians. DEMOCRATS. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the city attracted fresh young thinkers and tinkerers full of optimism and energy. The Chronicle staffed its city room with some of the brightest, many of whom set up shop in Sausalito where Tom and Bonnie bought an old Victorian house on a steep-wooded hill facing the Bay. The owner was a then unheralded painter named Richard Diebenkorn. When Diebenkorn abandoned, in the attic, a dozen of the canvases that ultimately made him famous, Mathews innocently and blindly stuffed them into a convertible with the top down and packed them off to Diebenkorn’s new studio, thereby blowing roughly ten million bucks.
On the Chronicle, he became a star feature writer, celebrated in Hanno’s Bar on Mission Street for his puckish leads (“Does everyone have a wand?” inquired Enid Foster, the Edith Sitwell of Sausalito’s Bloomsbury Set.”) For a picnic on Angel Island, he encouraged his friends to freeze Mason jars of Martinis, pointing out that there would be no ice when they arrived. The revelers forgot that their cubeless jars would melt into straight gin. By the time they returned to the boat dock, one of them was so wrecked he had to be shuttled onto Spike Africa’s Tahiti ketch in a wheelbarrow. The survivors started calling Mathews “The Instigator.”
He was dead serious about more significant issues. After Brown vs. Board of Education, he took his son’s championship grammar school basketball team to the Sausalito Sweet Shop to celebrate. Seven of the nine players were black kids from the Marin City ghetto, named for a shipyard and the black workers left high and dry in Marin County after world War II. When the Greek-American owner refused to serve their table, Mathews stormed into the kitchen. After some yelling and a crash of pots and pans, the owner came out sheepishly and said the hot dogs and fries were on the house. After explaining the Supreme Court’s decision, Mathews pointed out that good kids screwed by a bigot bastard was the Chronicle’s idea of a first rate front-page story. He covered the San Quentin execution of Caryl Chessman, a martyr to crusaders against capital punishment, but only if the Chronicle agreed to a run another story about the execution of somebody no one knew or cared about. The night he returned from his second visit to the gas chamber, his son heard him sobbing downstairs. The next morning his notes were illegible.
If the Chronicle had made him its political editor and sent him to Sacramento, he might never have left the pleasant Bay Area world he called Lotus Land. Newhall thought that would be a waste of talent just at the time Mathews began thinking that the journalist’s job as professional, detached witness, exciting, as it was, was just near beer. He wanted to stop seeing life from outside the window. The field position he really needed was inside. More important than that, he didn’t just want to watch things happen; he wanted to make them happen. He quit the Chronicle and set up a small consulting shop in a loft overlooking Juanita’s Galley, owned by a Sausalito fishwife who covered her huge girth in a billowing MuMu, cursed most of her customers but lavished love and bacon and eggs on him.
His first client was the state’s attorney general, Edmund G. Brown. Everyone called him Pat. He wore huge glasses, had a young son named Jerry and he was a solid Democrat. He hired Dick Tuck, a rogue who had made his name punking Richard Nixon. The night before the election they had a few drinks, in Sacramento, climbed a ladder up the Capitol dome, and unfurled a pennant that said “Brown Knows.” At dawn reality seeped in, and they woke up, horrified. Would one little pun cost them the election? Fortunately for everyone, it rained that night. Rushing back to the dome, they found, to their relief and the preservation of their careers, that a high wind had whipped the pennant around the flagstaff and blown it away.
A few weeks before Christmas in 1960 Mathews went to Utah to see his mother and father and do a little skiing. Late one afternoon, with the light on the slopes at Alta fading from hot white to pale blue, he walked into the bar of the old Alta Lodge. His face was a skier’s mask: sunburned forehead, eyes circled in white where the goggles had been, his stubby Welch Nose daubed with zinc oxide.
Settling into his seat, he saw, an elbow or two away, Robert McNamara, newly tapped to be John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. The phone rang.
“Washington calling,” yodeled the barkeeper.
“I’ll take it,” McNamara said stretching out a well-practiced hand.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Secretary,” whispered the barkeep. It’s for Tom.”
After that the rest was history.
The soon-to-be White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, an old friend from the Chronicle, had touted him to the Kennedys. “He arrived on the fifth floor of the Peace Corps Building in those boots and a Russian hat,” recalled William Haddad in the oral history he left with the Kennedy Library in Boston. “He just walked through the door and said, ‘I’m here.’” Haddad was a hard-nosed reporter up from the New York Post who, like Salinger, had joined the Kennedy’s Round Table to change the world. He accurately sized up Mathews as part Sir Tristan, a great shot also from Wales, with more than a whiff about him of Sir Percival, always chasing the Holy Grail.
Over at the White House, JFK’s Irish Mafia let it be known that they didn’t want to take any crap from Peace Corps water walkers stoned on Hallelujah. They had Mathews all wrong. In a conference room once staffed by the high rollers of the Marshall Plan, he himself liked to shoot craps with Franklin Williams, a lanky civil rights attorney out of Thurgood Marshall’s shop who later became Ambassador to Ghana. And there was more. “He played poker every Monday night with Salinger and all the top press corps guys,” Haddad remembered. “He transacted more business for the Peace Corps and its image over that table than almost anywhere else in town.”
The work was high maintenance, fueled on adrenaline and Scotch. From the Peace Corps he moved to the State Department as Deputy Secretary for Congressional Affairs, where he worked the Hill on behalf of Dean Rusk as the country squeaked through the Cuban Missile Crisis and crept up on Vietnam. The wear and tear was tremendous, even on a mountain man’s constitution. Staging a tactical retreat, he withdrew to Park City, Utah. He needed to chill out.
It was the best of ideas, the worst of ideas. The old mining town was even more depressed than Mathews. He bought a saloon on Main Street and called it “The Bucket” after the compact ore cars that emptied the Silver King Mine. Wearing an old Tuxedo jacket over blue jeans, he settled arguments among brawling miners with the Encyclopedia Britannica set he kept behind the bar. At the Bucket, you could look it up or you could take it outside.
He tasted so much of the stock himself that within a year he had to take a sabbatical at the VA hospital down in the valley. This cost him some dignity, but never his sense of the absurd. The first day in rehab a fellow dipsomaniac sidled up to him and whispered, “You ain’t here to kill me, are you?” “No,” Mathews replied, more sober than he’d felt for some time, “not if you behave yourself.”
He recovered and returned to the East fighting. For a few years he puttered around Manhattan, here a campaign for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose only ambition at the time was to be City Council President, there a freelance gig for American and Continental Can companies. Once in the space of a single week, he wrote the annual report for both giants, not, of course, showing his sly hand. Each side came away thinking it had kicked the hell out of the other. Then he did an image makeover for Lincoln Center, returning it from the toffs to the citizenry. “They’ve got a guy in there at the Met you wouldn’t believe,” he told friends. “You step into the Royal Box, you park your cigar with him first. Between acts you step out, he’s got it there for you, all lit and ready to go.” One night Mathews was sitting in that same box listening to Madame Butterfly. When Pinkerton, the rotten cad, stepped out on the stage, before the tenor could get out a single note, Mathews hissed so loudly you could hear it in the Dress Circle. Heads whirled. From the next box, a dowager encrusted in jewels stared across the rail at him, then said in her best Locust Valley lockjaw, “That’s a good idea.” And she hissed, too.
The Manhattan chowder always tasted weak to Mathews, so he got out as fast as he could. His ticket back to Washington in 1979 came from John Gardner and Common Cause. Gardner looked like a CEO and talked like a Harvard professor but he’d served in the Marines during the war, and even though LBJ had given him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he couldn’t stomach Vietnam.
Gardner was prone to lapse into abstraction, writing things like “It’s hard to feel individually responsible with respect to the invisible processes of a huge and distant government,” but Mathews knew he could work with that. He buddied up with Roger Craver, a young guy who looked even more puckish than Dick Tuck. This was deceptive. Craver was a mass-mail magician. Together they sent out 250,000 letters saying “Everyone’s organized but the people.” And while Mathews told people that he and Roger were running “a sort of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern operation,” in the blink of an eye they had a $2 million kitty and a mailing list of 100,000 citizen activists. For the next 30 years, Craver, Mathews & Smith was his political home. “We called him The Captain,” recalls Paula Craver, co-equal in the firm. “He had command presence. You were always in good hands when Tom was rocking the boat.”
Speaking his mind with the bark off, seldom without the brown fedora pushed back on his head, he reveled in his own contradictions. After the war he refused to buy his sons cap pistols, no matter how loudly they whined and when one of them smuggled home a five-buck BB gun, Mathews spiked it by breaking the spring on the toy rifle’s air pump. Over the years he raised millions of dollars for gun control, but he also owned a Browning Sweet 16 shotgun and he was a member in good standing of the Wasatch Rod and Gun Club. He just prayed that that no one would catch him. Nothing ever tied his tongue. “He dispensed clear and concise strategic advice in an inimitable manner,” says Craver, recalling a presentation the two of them once made at the National Audubon Society. The bird watchers were impressed. When the organization’s president invited them to meet the full board and proposed a time, Mathews, said, “Can’t make it. That date conflicts with the opening of duck season.”
While you could take Mathews out of Utah, you could never take Utah, with its high-grade ski slopes and pristine trout streams, out of Mathews. He developed a sharp eye for real estate and young business talent, forming an alliance with Bill Coleman, a broker and developer, and Russ Coburn, a manager at the Silver King State Bank. Long before Robert Redford and the Sundance Film Festival breathed new life back into the dusty Egyptian house of movies on Main Street and the sagebrush-covered foothills around Park City started sprouting McMansions, he parlayed his stake in The Bucket into his own small paradise.
Once, as a kid, he had scaled the great rock face of Mt. Olympus, the peak commanding the Salt Lake Valley. Near the top he found himself straddling a razor back ridge with a drop of two thousand feet on either side of his boots. With one foot pointed west past toward the Mormon Temple and the Golden Gate Bridge, and the other aimed east in the general direction of the Washington Monument, he made it to the top, a climb that supplies an apt metaphor for his entire career. For the rest of his life he commuted between Park City and the ante-bellum hamlet of Waterford, Virginia, making big rain fall for CMS, plotting real estate deals and hook-and-bullet expeditions from Utah to British Columbia.
One day Coleman came to him to report that Jan Peterson, a popular outdoorsman who ran Wolfe’s, the biggest sports store in town, had been mangled in a wreck below Parley’s Summit. A hurry-up wagon had taken him to the hospital with severe brain injuries. “I’ve known him since he was a kid,” said Mathews. “Christ, I’ve fished with his father. We gotta do something.” When Coleman told him that Peterson’s boss had cut him loose and done nothing for his family, Mathews said, “What do you do with an SOB like that–you put him out of business. “He and Coburn scratched up some seed money, Peterson supplied moxie with dealers, and by the following winter, Jans, the new outfitters on the mountain, was snow- plowing Wolfe’s into oblivion.
Coleman, Mathews and Coburn made a perfect team. Bill was the broker and scout, Coburn the banker, Mathews the tough guy, the one who said, “You leave the trouble to me, “whenever the shit hit the snow machine. “When you brought him a good idea, he’d clap his hands, rub them together for four or five seconds, look you in the eye and say, ‘Let’s do it.’” Coburn says, “Tom earned his respect. He’d sit down, listen, look around the room, and say, ‘Discussion?’ Yes? No? OK let’s get out of here before we fuck it up.’”
Back in his bad old Park City days, the miners knew Mathews as the guy the town’s only cop, Whistling Bill, once jugged for vagrancy. Now he became catnip to a new glitterati. “He was a legend,” remembers Elspeth Gugi, who accepted an invitation to stay at his place while recovering from difficult time in her life. I always admired his insight into people. He saw things in them they didn’t see themselves. He knew when you needed a little push.” She created a day job of fixing up and re-selling houses out in Kamus. Nights she became an aprÃ¨s-ski torch singer at the Goldener Hirsch (Golden Deer). Mathews sometimes turned up to sing his own version of Lili Marlene with her and the guy who played the accordion. His revised lyrics went like this: “We met the German Army at the Brenner Pass. We got hepatitis and a bullet up the ass,” a 10th Mountain ditty so subversive the Army threatened to court martial anyone caught singing it.
He got in touch with his old news pals to report that he’d built the finest bathroom with the greatest shower in the American West. They came out and formed a Non Governmental Organization called the Society of the Solid Muldoons. The outfit’s namesake was a famous Park City miner who could shovel 16 tons of lead or silver ore in a day, blow off steam at Lola’s Crib, hit every bar on Main Street, wind up at the Cozy (where the sign heading up the hill said First Chance and the sign heading down said Last Chance) and still turn up ready for to pick up his shovel the next morning. The charter members were: Bob Healy, Washington Bureau Chief of the Boston Globe; Fred Graham of the New York Times, CBS and Court TV, the best legal mind on the tube; Ed Fouhy, ace producer for NBC, CBS, and ABC, who could move a camera crew from the West Wing to the Hill faster than any man alive; Tom Scanlon, founder of Benchmarks, Inc., who started as one of the first Peace Corps volunteers and wound up as Chairman of the Public Welfare Foundation, boosting the group’s bankroll from $11 million to over $600 million and calling his political memoirs, “Sweet Grapes, “and Terence Smith.
“Tom led us all for 40 years,” Smith says. “He was the kind of newsman you could rely on not to sell you a bill of goods. I never had a better pal.” The Society had no bylaws, rules or purpose. Its mission was to ski all day, drink, play poker, and tell lies all night. They dubbed Mathews their Grand Druid and flushed their radiators once each year on Druid Fluid, a potent blend of Bordeaux and Merlot. They put Ethel Kennedy up for membership, but then reluctantly voted thumbs down when she said she’d rather die than bend her knee before any Grand Druid, even if he was Tom Mathews.
It wasn’t always so jolly. His first marriage fell on jagged rocks he couldn’t climb and there was a divorce. He met Ann Anderson of Atlanta. They had brushed past each other in the Peace Corps, where she had been a writer and editor. Decades passed. She worked as the fashion editor for the Nashville Tennessean, then handled the media for Rosalynn Carter, marrying Pat Anderson, one of Jimmy Carter’s best speech writers and a first rate novelist of suspense.
He loved Bonnie, but he told friends they had wound up circling each other like two scorpions in a bottle. Ann Anderson was beautiful, youthful and smart as a whip. She walked and talked like a lady and sang in the church choir.
After her divorce, they married and settled permanently in Waterford, Virginia, a lovely ante-bellum village where Mathews spent the rest of his life. He became stepfather to her daughter Laura, a free spirit with a set of effervescent twins, and son Michael, who held a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, founded an international NGO that brought English teachers to Thailand to volunteer in the countryside, and worked at USAID for Southeast Asia. Michael also had a little boy named Andres, so Mathews became a step-grandfather.
Once again he felt like a troubadour. In the Depression, he said, he’d felt like a kid always standing outside the candy store window. Now he had state-of-the-art skis, poles and boots, and all the best rods for browns and rainbows, cutthroats and steelhead. He and Ann fished the Weber and the Green in Utah, the Madison in Montana, the Bulkley in British Columbia. They traveled the world. They bought a little house with gingerbread trim and a view of the alpine glow on Mt. Timpanogos.
When his superstructure finally began to wear out, he fought back gallantly, bouncing back as a nonagenarian from brain surgery that drilled holes in his beezer.
But last winter, when Smith called up to organize the annual reunion of the Solid Muldoons, he said that his plumbing was rusting and he’d have to take a pass. “Not possible. We’ll postpone,” Smith protested. “But he just said ‘Go. Sempre Avanti.’” After Ann’s health grew fragile, for the first time in his life he seemed discouraged, but when she rallied, he did, too. “I’m alive,” he chortled over the phone. “I’m going for one hundred.” An infection pole-axed him. When the doctors in rehab said there wasn’t much more they could do, he said, “I want to go home.” The day before he died, he sat next to Ann in Waterford watching “A River Runs Through It” on TV.” And then he was gone.
He leaves a smooth shining track on the hill. His wife Ann Mathews survives him, along with two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, a stepson and stepdaughter, ten grandchildren and six great-grand children. The Muldoons are making plans to distribute his ashes on the Bulkley, the Madison and the far side of Mt. Timpanogos, where he first strapped on skis and hiked upward for hours to explode through the deep powder of the Wasatch Range.