A bully was stalking the nation’s capital. Insulting people, intimidating Congress. Someone should stand up for American values, congressmen said behind the scenes. Someone from the bully’s own party.
Margaret Chase Smith had been a Republican senator for just a year.
“And in those days,” she recalled, “freshmen senators were to be seen and not heard.”
When Joseph McCarthy produced a list of 205 communists in government, Smith trusted him.
“It looked as if Joe was onto something disturbing,” she said. But then she studied McCarthy’s “evidence.”
At first, she hoped some Democrat would speak up, but she soon saw that “Joe had the Senate paralyzed with fear.”
Back in Skowhegan, Maine, folks knew Maggie Chase, daughter of a barber and a shoe factory hand. She taught school, then wrote for the town newspaper. She married her publisher, Clyde Smith, and when he was elected to Congress, she accompanied him to Washington, D.C. After his death, she won a special election, then won four elections on her own.
Though beloved in Maine, in Congress, Senator Smith was known more for her attire than her expertise. She always wore a red rose in her lapel. And that was all Washington expected from Maine’s junior senator.
But then she gave Congress a lesson in integrity.
On June 1, 1950, Smith sat on the Senate floor, three rows in front of McCarthy. Still nervous, she stood to deliver her Declaration of Conscience. For the next 15 minutes, she spoke — “as a Republican... as a woman, as a United States senator...” but also “as an American.” Her words echoed through the chamber.
“ ...selfish political opportunism ...A forum of hate and character assassination... ”
“The American people,” she said, “are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared. ...I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
Three weeks after Smith’s speech, the Korean War broke out. McCarthyism shifted into high gear.
Nearly four years later, CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow finally showed McCarthy bullying, blustering, lying.
Murrow concluded with a promise: “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men...”
Nor, Margaret Chase Smith showed, from fearful women.
Draw your own conclusions.
Bruce Watson writes an online magazine called The Attic. He lives in Montague, Massachusetts.