By Tom Lamia
Margaret Chase Smith was a US Senator from Maine whose life and political career offer proof of the power of independent thinking and the courage to act on it, even in the face of demands for loyalty to party doctrine. Just a few words of background should be enough to make the point for Republicans and Democrats alike, both now frozen in immobility by their separate paths toward constitutional democracy.
In my California youth, Senator Smith was a curiosity—a somewhat exotic compound name associated with a state whose existence to me was only conjecture. Then came 1964 and the Republican effort to escape near-total irrelevancy by nominating for president a candidate who could not only represent a form of Republicanism favorable to a majority of voters, but also one who could overcome the national mood of suspicion over the Kennedy assassination and sympathy toward the newly inaugurated president and Democratic nominee, Lyndon Johnson. Among the candidates were Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater—two eastern establishment moderates and a western maverick conservative. There were others who remained in the running as the party’s convention opened in San Francisco that July, among them the two-term senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith. What did she represent and what was she doing seeking the highest position in the land?
By her own admission, Senator Smith had no money and no illusions (no woman had ever been nominated by a major party), but she had vowed to stay in to the end. As she put it, “When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.” She lost every primary, although she did get 25 percent of the vote in Illinois. At the convention, she placed fifth in the first ballot, which tallied enough votes for Goldwater to nominate him. When all other candidates stepped aside so that the Goldwater nomination could be unanimous, she declined. Still, she campaigned for Goldwater.
In the Senate, to which she was elected in 1948 after serving four terms in the House, a short speech she gave on the Senate floor in 1950 led to her becoming known as the conscience of the Republican party. Fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy had been finding communists everywhere in government and was fulminating against the Truman administration for its enabling of communist infiltration of the government. Senator Smith expected the Democrats to challenge McCarthy. When no challenge came, she said, “It became evident that Joe had the Senate paralyzed with fear.”
So, on June 1st, 1950, Senator Smith took the floor to deliver a fifteen-minute “Declaration of Conscience.” She did not name McCarthy directly, but denounced “the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle [her side].” McCarthyism had “debased” the Senate to “the level of a forum of hate and character assassination.” She recounted every American’s “right to criticize…right to hold unpopular beliefs…right to protest; right of independent thought.” “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.” Six other Senate Republicans signed on to her Declaration. McCarthy then characterized this Republican group as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs,” then replaced Smith on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations with Senator Richard Nixon and backed an unsuccessful primary challenger against Smith in 1954. McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954, with the support of Senator Smith.
Smith later offered this opinion of the impact of her work in the Senate: “If I am to be remembered in history, it will not be because of legislative accomplishments, but for an act I took as a legislator in the U.S. Senate on June 1, 1950, when I spoke…in condemnation of McCarthyism…[McCarthy] had the Senate paralyzed with fear that he would purge any Senator who disagreed with him.”
This chapter in the life of Margaret Chase Smith from Skowhegan, Maine, is a parable for today’s relationship between Donald Trump and Susan Collins. Senator Collins, with her background as an independent thinker, could be expected to follow the example of the first woman senator from Maine and speak out in defiance of Trump’s scorched-earth harangues and have the courage to stand up to him. So far she has not.