By Tom Lamia
I have spoken often in this monthly column about Maine, my home for the past six years. I have contrasted Maine characters and characteristics, with their counterparts in the West Village. Over time mental images of New York and the West Village have receded, while impressions of Maine have moved to the center. As this process has evolved, I have found that these monthly essays increasingly feature the impact of life on Maine and its people. The result has been more stories and observations about where I live now and fewer about the universe of my old home on Charles Street.
But, there is often a connecting thread in my thoughts, that finds its way into what I write, of ideas and forces that are common to both worlds.
For example, in recent years I have spoken proudly of admirable qualities often found in a solid Maine citizenry. A hardy character associated with Maine’s geography; the need to make the best of farming rocky soil, fishing in rough seas and finding buyers for hard won products in distant markets. Past columns have featured an early Bowdoin College professor turned Civil War general who plugged a gap in the Union lines at Gettysburg; quarry workers who cut granite blocks from coastal islands, loaded it on sailing ships and transported it to the Hudson River waterfront to build New York City structures and streets; and a diminutive bureaucrat from the northern edge of Maine who refused to authorize a security clearance for Trump’s son-in-law at the cost of her job.
Several of these columns have incorporated the stories of Maine politics and politicians who have stood out for their skills and courage on the national stage: Frances Perkins, Ed Muskie, George Mitchell, William Cohen, Angus King and Margaret Chase Smith. Each of these individuals set a high standard for integrity in public service.
The West Village can claim its own heroes in these matters: Alexander Hamilton is said to have died in a house on Jane Street the morning after being rowed back to New York following his mortal duel with Aaron Burr; Fiorello La Guardia, born in the Village, embodied in his life and political career the essence of New York character—ambition, confidence, progressive ideals and likeability—all in a diminutive, fearless physical package.
All were outspoken in their unwillingness to sit idle while society suffered fools.
Now, another Maine politician has a chance to join my list of stalwarts, one whose effort would gain my praise for political courage. I speak, of course, of Maine’s Senator Susan Collins, whose reputation for political courage was in tatters after she wrung her hands and gnashed her teeth repeatedly over whether or not to side with her party’s President on critical votes. In keeping the nation on tenterhooks while weighing her conscience against her future in politics, she managed to disappoint all sides and earn a reputation for insincerity and indecisiveness. She has now the chance to redeem her reputation after her party leader abandoned her out of spite over her announced refusal to vote for yet another of his Supreme Court nominees (Barrett) before the November election. This was her reward for her efforts to curry his favor with votes against his impeachment and for his prior controversial Supreme Court nominee (Kavanaugh). It is also a chance to salvage her political party and its historical principles. She can take her text from her predecessor Margaret Chase Smith.
In 1950, in her second year in the U.S. Senate, Smith gave her “Declaration of Conscience” speech in the Senate. She did not mention Senator Joseph McCarthy, but spoke of her concern that “some members” were turning the Senate into “a forum of hate and character assassination.” She appealed for a return to “the right to independent thought” and to the principles of the Republican party, saying that the party should base its opposition to the Democrats on “proved cases” not “unproven charges.” Six Republican colleagues joined her; 35 remained silent. McCarthy reacted savagely, referring to Smith and her colleagues as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs” and caused her to be removed from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, to be replaced by new Senator Richard Nixon. McCarthy and his allies took every opportunity to smear Smith thereafter—until a day four years later when the Senate effectively ended McCarthy’s career by voting to censure him.
The parallels between what Margaret Chase Smith of Maine faced in confronting a powerful and feared Republican Senator and a bloc of Republican colleagues who would not stand up to his bullying and falsehoods, and the situation faced by Republican senators today in their cowering devotion to a defeated President Trump needs no elaboration. If that freshman U.S. Senator from Maine could assert her independence and face the attacks that followed, should we not expect a five-term Senator from the same state to declare openly what is within her conscience and call out a man whose transgressions exceed those of McCarthy and whose effect on her Republican Party is every bit as malign? Collins would have the support of a handful of Republican colleagues in the Senate, as Smith did, and she would no doubt be viciously attacked by a great number of Republicans in the Senate and elsewhere.
She has only to say publicly that Trump lost in a free and fair election and his efforts to enlist election officials to “overturn” the result, are unconstitutional. Not so hard. She outpolled Trump in November by a large margin, so what can she now be afraid of? Mainers will appreciate such a demonstration of courage.