By D. Allan Kerr
Courage pills appear to be in short supply in Washington D.C. these days, and I’m not sure why.
Members of Congress feeling weak in the knees need only to look back at the history of their own chambers to find strength. As it happens, one of the more stirring episodes was enacted by Maine’s own Margaret Chase Smith.
Smith was a trailblazing pioneer who in my humble opinion doesn’t get her due today, even in her home state. My 15-year-old niece and 21-year-old daughter-in-law-to-be, both lifelong Mainers and extremely bright young women, say they were never taught about this legendary statesman.
Smith was the first woman in American history to be elected to both houses of the U.S. Congress, and also the first woman to have her name put forward by a major party for president of the United States. She served in Washington from 1940 to 1972, and was famous for her fierce independence and the trademark fresh rose she pinned to her dress every day.
But she is best known for standing up to a loudmouth demagogue named Joe McCarthy at a time when few dared to do so.
Try to picture this:
It’s 1950 and McCarthy, the U.S. senator from Wisconsin, is becoming the most famous guy in the country by exploiting anti-Communist fear and paranoia, throwing out reckless accusations like paper towels for Puerto Ricans.
Americans of this era are a pretty hardboned generation, having been tempered by the Great Depression and World War II, but few have the courage to challenge McCarthy’s witch hunt.
Those who do are branded pro-Communist and anti-American, or perhaps Communists themselves, which in 1950 is like being called a traitor and a pedophile.
But on June 1, 1950, Margaret Chase Smith takes to the floor of the United States Senate to deliver her famous Declaration of Conscience. Smith is the lone woman in this celebrated men’s club and is only in the second year of her first term, although she had served in the House of Representatives for a decade.
And she, like McCarthy, is a staunch Republican. But none of her male colleagues are up to the job.
Smith is a very dignified lady, almost aristocratic, but of very humble beginnings – the daughter of a waitress/shoe factory worker and the town barber of Skowhegan, Maine. She never attended college because the family couldn’t afford it.
She first went to Washington to fill the unexpired term of her late husband in the House, but then was elected to four more terms of her own before winning a Senate seat in 1948. She is, as President Kennedy will say later, “a very formidable political figure.” Hell, she has to be – she’s a woman in an historically male environment during a male-dominated age.
She doesn’t mention McCarthy by name, but there’s no mistaking her intent when she warns of a “national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.”
“I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul searching – for us to weigh our consciences – on the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America – on the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges,” she says.
“I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. I think that it is high time that we remembered that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only of the freedom of speech but also of trial by jury instead of trial by accusation. Whether it be a criminal prosecution in court or a character prosecution in the Senate, there is little practical distinction when the life of a person has been ruined.”
(Almost seven decades later, it amazes me how her words resonate in the current political climate.)
“Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism,” she continues:
“The right to criticize;
The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
The right to protest;
The right of independent thought.”
“The nation sorely needs a Republican victory,” Smith adds later. “But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”
It’s a 15-minute speech and I can’t fit it all here, but thru the magic of the Internet her Declaration of Conscience is pretty easy to find and definitely worth the read. Smith’s words are so powerful six other Republican senators – including New Hampshire’s Charles Tobey – are compelled to sign on in concurrence with her statement.
McCarthy is truly one of the more loathsome characters in American history, a buffoon who makes up lies about his military service and destroys lives and careers thru malicious slander. He persecutes suspected homosexuals as well as those he believes to be Communists, usually without evidence.
He derides Smith and her supporters as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs” and has her removed from a key subcommittee, assigning her slot to a young California senator named Richard Nixon.
But Smith has the last laugh. By 1954 the country is growing weary of McCarthy’s shenanigans and Smith is among those in the Senate who vote to censure him, the final death knell of his credibility. McCarthy remains in office but no one pays him much attention and in 1957 he dies at age 48 from what is generally accepted as alcohol-related causes.
Smith, however, goes on to a very successful career. She’s the first woman to sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 1956 she and Eleanor Roosevelt become the first women to appear on the TV pundit show “Face the Nation.” She is seriously considered as a vice-presidential candidate for Dwight D. Eisenhower (another position that goes to Nixon) and in 1964 campaigns for the White House herself.
“I have few illusions and no money,” she says of her presidential bid. “When people keep telling you that you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.”
Smith finishes second in the Illinois primary and places fifth in delegates among eight candidates at the 1964 Republican convention. She becomes the first woman in American history to have her name entered for nomination by a major party. Unlike the other candidates, she declines to release her delegates to GOP nominee Barry Goldwater.
In 1967 she becomes the first woman to chair a major Senate committee. She is finally defeated in a re-election bid at the age of 74, considered too old and frail to continue to serve, but lives another two decades before passing on in her beloved Skowhegan after 96 years on Earth.
For many years, Smith was the only woman in the U.S. Senate. Today there are 22 female senators. And it’s pretty damn cool one of them happens to be Susan Collins, another courageous and independent but downright ladylike Maine Republican who as a teenager once talked politics with Smith for two hours.
Like Smith before her, Collins has repeatedly had to speak out against demagogues within her own party when colleagues are too fearful to do so. She is one of the few who has consistently called out Donald Trump – in her uniquely genteel fashion – when he steps over the line.
Over the past couple of years she’s also emerged as one of the few genuine statesmen left in Washington, as exemplified by her role in ending the government shutdown last month.
As an aside, speaking of bold women senators, you have to salute Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. Being a Democrat she doesn’t risk much by challenging Trump, but she does so with a bluntness some of her male colleagues could emulate.
When Trump tried to attack Democrats during last month’s government shutdown she retorted, “I will not be lectured about what our military needs by a five-deferment draft dodger,” and mockingly referred to him as “Cadet Bone Spurs.” Duckworth is a former Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs during combat in Iraq, so Trump was wise to keep his mouth shut this time.
A few days later Duckworth announced she is pregnant, and is due in April to become the first sitting U.S. senator to give birth. She is quite literally a Bad Mama.
I really didn’t intend this piece to be a cool-chick tribute – I just wanted to remind people there is such a thing as political courage. But since this is what it’s turned out to be, I’m compelled to end with a quote from Smith’s 1948 Senate campaign, after the wife of an opponent questioned why voters should send a woman to Washington “when you can get a man.”
“Women administer the home,” the lady from Skowhegan replied. “They set the rules, enforce them, and mete out justice for violations. Thus, like Congress, they legislate; like the Executive, they administer; like the courts, they interpret the rules. It is an ideal experience for politics.”
D. Allan Kerr is no relation to Jean Kerr, the wife of Joseph McCarthy. At least he hopes not.