What Would Margaret Chase Smith Have Done?

The first national election in which I voted was 1972, the year that Margaret Chase Smith lost her U.S. Senate seat to Bill Hathaway.  I am sure I must have voted for Hathaway, largely because of Senator Smith’s dogged support for American policies in Vietnam.

My early political inclinations notwithstanding, I find the Margaret Chase Smith Library and Museum in Skowhegan to be one of the best historical sites in Maine.  I visited in June and it is a place every Mainer should visit   The museum is attached to the Senator’s home and is filled with mementos from an active political life.  Much like the Roosevelt “cottage” on Campobello Island, the Smith home evokes the feeling that famous people are just about to come around the corner.  More importantly, the museum has obviously worked hard to document Senator Smith’s legacy and ethic of public service.  You understand this by the reminders of the Senator’s creed:

My creed is that public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation with full recognition that every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration, that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, that honor is to be earned but not bought.

Central to the Smith story was her “Declaration of Conscience” challenging the demagoguery of fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy.  But this was just one example of her political courage; and one cannot help but wonder how she would act if she were a Republican Senator from Maine today.  My guess from the story presented at the museum and in the history books is that she would have been appalled at the way in which Party has been put before country.  It is always dangerous to play this game, but here are some examples of how I think she might have taken a stand today, even against her own Party in the Senate.

When the Republican Senate Majority leader said that he hoped the Obama Presidency would be a failure, I think Senator Smith might have hoped for America to be a success.  She was an American before she was a Republican and would have objected to wanting the nation to fail.  We would have heard that from her.

When Senate Republican leadership refused to hold hearings and a vote on the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, she would have fought for a vote, even if she might not have voted to confirm.  In the museum tour you will discover how important the Constitution was to her.  The Senate’s role in Supreme Court nominations is “advice and consent” and she would have used her influence to be sure the Senate did its Constitutional work.  She would not have stood idly by.

When Senate Republicans voted to change the longstanding cloture rules to prevent Democrats from blocking judicial nominations in the way Republicans had blocked multiple nominations before,  I think she would have objected.  Senator Smith had a sense of fairness about her; the rules should be the same for everyone.  I think she would not have voted to change the rules for political expediency.

I am not sure how the Senator would have voted on the highly contentious nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, but she did show the independence of spirit and strength of character to vote against President Nixon’s nomination of Clement Haynsworth to the Supreme Court.  She was willing to stand up to Party and Presidential pressure to do the right thing for the nation.

Finally, and most importantly, Senator Smith showed the courage of her convictions by calling out a popular member of her own Party who was using rumor, misrepresentations, and outright lies to sow division among Americans.  She called for fairness, civility, and the recognition of the basic rights; and she feared for the effects of McCarthyism on Republicans.  She said in her 1950 speech before the Senate, “…I do not want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear. …I do not believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.”

Would that we were hearing such wisdom and courage today.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.