The Joyful, Fighting Spirit Of Tom Mathews
Too often we focus on the technical tactics of fundraising, spending far too little time on the intangible, but all-important, heart and soul that form the foundation of all causes and movements.
In a world too invested in maintaining silence, the hero’s words of truth ring out like a pistol shot. Last week our world lost a hero. Tom Belford and I lost a long-time partner, mentor, fellow hell-raiser and a true heart and soul of many of today’s progressive movements.
Tom Mathews, 96, left behind a life jam-packed with brilliant thoughts transformed into effective action through street-smarts and political savvy — all topped off by an iconoclastic attitude sandblasting the status quo.
For 40 years we were partners in Craver, Mathews, Smith (CMS), a liberal consulting and fundraising firm that Tom affectionately termed “the bomb throwers”.
Tom was a fallen-away Mormon from Utah who fought with the famed 10th Mountain Division in World War II…returned from the war to become a first-rate reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle covering some of the headline crimes (and executions) of the mid-20th Century…and then moved on to Washington, D.C. where I first met him.
Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, called Mathews “My Peace Corps Poet” because his first job in Washington was to sell dubious reporters and a hostile Congress on President Kennedy’s concept of the Peace Corps.
Dwight Eisenhower called the idea “infantile” and Richard Nixon “an escape for elitists and draft dodgers”. But Tom’s skill with words, images and creating great causes (not to mention his ability to work the halls of power and the best poker games in town) paid off. Within a year Time was calling the Peace Corps John F. Kennedy’s “single greatest accomplishment”.
Tom’s world was simple. David vs. Goliath. In the words of long-time friend Mark Shields, dean of liberal columnists and NPR commentator, “He was the happiest of warriors, the best of companions, the most American of Americans — always standing with the little guy.”
We teamed up in 1969 to launch Common Cause, learned the direct mail and movement-building trade as we went along, and over the years helped launch and build some of the great advocacy organizations like Handgun Control, NARAL, The National Organization for Women, Greenpeace and Amnesty International. And together we worked on the presidential campaigns of Morris Udall (1976), John Anderson (1980) and Ted Kennedy (1980) not to mention dozens of U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races.
Tom said 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. And this year he admitted that Donald Trump was indeed testing his unflagging optimism.
Tom had an uncanny talent for stirring outrage against injustice. His finely honed political skills, amplified by a cadre of press comrades who trusted his judgement, gave credibility to the new, percolating advocacy organizations at a time when few people had ever heard of ‘citizen lobbies’, ‘grassroots activists’ or issues like ‘reproductive rights’ and ‘environmentalism’.
Tom Mathews lived his life believing that it is the little guy — who could be a woman, a gay, a lesbian, a Black, Asian, Jew or Muslim, or anyone else — who occupies the vast center of American politics, not the war-torn zones of the far right and far left.
Always plain speaking — usually with a brown fedora pushed to the back of his head — he reveled in his own contradictions. After the war he refused to buy his sons cap pistols. Over the years he helped launch and raise millions for the gun control movement. At the same time he owned a fine pair of shotguns and was a member in good standing in Utah’s Watsatch Rod and Gun Club.
Tom was no shrinking violet when it came to dispensing advice or speaking his mind to clients. I’ll never forget a presentation he and I made 20 years ago to the president and chair of the National Audubon Society. Clearly impressed the officers asked if we could return to meet the full board and they proposed a date and time.
“Can’t make it”, Tom replied. “That date conflicts with the opening of duck season.”
Dozens and dozens of the folks who worked with us at Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company benefitted from Tom’s counsel and advice — always served up with humor, often liberally salted with Anglo-Saxon vernacular.
Many scores of our fellow travelers from CMS days and across the progressive movements are still active. And some even read The Agitator.
For those fortunate folks and for all Agitator readers who are interested in the life of this remarkable spark plug who fired so many movements, here’s a detailed, fun and touching Joyful Celebration of Tom Mathews written by his son, Tom. It vividly captures the man, his spirit and his time.
Goodbye Tom Mathews.
Your unquenchable spirit — your heroic pistol shot — reverberates without interruption.
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