HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The Susquehanna was glassy, reflecting low April clouds. In the old lock-tender's house on the western bank sat the former Eleanor Tydings, looking lovely in blue, signing copies of a new biography of her late husband on the day before her 88th birthday.
The memory of Millard Tydings has dimmed a bit with the passage of time. He died in 1961, 11 years after his bitter defeat while seeking a fifth term in the United States Senate. Had he lived, he would now be 102. Even his stepson Joe, who served one term in the Senate, has been out of office for more than 20 years.
But in Havre de Grace, where Millard Tydings grew up, swam naked in the river as a child, practiced law, entered politics, and ended his days in a magnificent house overlooking the Susquehanna Flats, he hasn't been forgotten. He loved this town, and traces of his sojourn here are everywhere.
nTC Slightly upriver from the lock-tender's house is a railroad bridge; while a college student, Tydings held a construction job helping to build it. Upriver from that bridge is another, which carries Interstate 95. The highway bridge bears the Tydings name. So does the city's waterfront park, just below the lighthouse where the senator's maternal grandfather was the keeper.
At the book-signing session by the river last Sunday, it was plain that his hometown remembers Tydings with respect and affection. Copies of Caroline Keith's excellent new biography, "For Hell and a Brown Mule," were selling briskly, and local people lined up to speak to the senator's widow, who is now Mrs. Lowell Ditzen.
Havre de Grace is not an ordinary place, and the four-term U.S. Senator born here on April 6, 1890, was not an ordinary politician. His career had a kind of cohesion and focus that was remarkable even in his day; viewed through the political smog of 1992, it seems quite incredible.
In brief, Millard Tydings was a poor but talented small-town lad who achieved success without ever selling his soul. He was a war hero, serving in France with the famed "Blue and Gray" 29th Division in France. After the war, his political career moved steadily and inexorably forward: Speaker of the House of Delegates, Congressman, Senator.
In politics, you're often defined by your enemies. Tydings, to an extent without parallel today, made powerful ones on both the right and the left.
He was a centrist Democrat who cautiously backed the New Deal, then broke with Franklin Roosevelt over his proposal to pack the Supreme Court. The Democratic left, uneasy about him to begin with, instantly made him a target, and in 1938 Roosevelt campaigned in Maryland in an effort to defeat him. But the effort backfired; as the presidential motorcade made its stately way up the Eastern Shore, everywhere the President turned he saw Tydings banners.
In 1950, still a centrist, Tydings was finally brought down by the Republican right after speaking out forcefully against the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The campaign was one of the slimiest in Maryland history, featuring a doctored photograph purporting to show Tydings deep in conversation with the American Communist Earl Browder.
After his defeat, Tydings returned to Havre de Grace. Six years later, trying to win back the seat he felt with some justification had been stolen from him, he had to withdraw from the campaign for reasons of health. The Democratic nomination went to George Mahoney, and the Republicans kept the seat.
The political career of Millard Tydings is of more-than-usual interest today because he is one of the best 20th century examples of a species that is now almost extinct -- the moderate, independent-minded Democrat. He believed, as did Edmund Burke, that the voters had sent him to Washington to exercise his best judgment, not to reflect the views of the noisiest claque or best-funded lobby.
In 1939, Ms. Keith reports, during an emotional debate over neutrality legislation, Maryland isolationists threatened him. "I don't care for hell and a brown mule," the international-minded Tydings shouted back. "I'll do what I think is right."
Here in Havre de Grace, his widow recalled the difficulties of a political life in the turbulent center.
"We were Democrats, but we weren't wild-eyed liberals, you know. We were moderates, middle-of-the-roaders. Millard used to say that when the revolution came, we'd be the first ones they'd shoot."
It's hard to say if the revolution has occurred or not. But it's a fact that Democratic centrists of the Tydings stamp have vanished like the canvasbacks, which not so many years ago used to feed by the thousands on the wild celery out there on the Susquehanna Flats.
Peter Jay's column appears here each Sunday.