As Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker fends off the president’s latest wrecking-ball Tweet, I offer three words of advice: Margaret Chase Smith.
Most Bay Staters know that Baker regularly parts company with fellow Republican Donald Trump over matters like his refusal to commit to a peaceful post-election transfer of power and his assault on mail-in balloting, which led Trump to recently brand Baker a RINO, or "Republican in name only."
It’s equally true that our ever-cautious governor has balked at making the full-throated break many presidential critics would like and consistency would seem to require.
What people may not know is that it was Smith, the only woman in the Senate, who set the mold 70 years ago for calling out a demagogue within her ranks. The Maine Republican paid dearly at the time, but history has rewarded her courage in a way that should stiffen Baker’s backbone as he decides whether to formally endorse Democratic nominee Joe Biden in these last weeks of the presidential campaign.
The bully Smith took on was Sen. Joe McCarthy, and she did it in the early months of his crusade against communism, when there was a possibility of limiting the damage. Smith had met McCarthy years before at a dinner party and was smitten. The two shared a fright about Soviet subversion, and McCarthy not only nabbed her a seat on the investigations subcommittee where he was ranking Republican but trumpeted her as a future vice presidential nominee.
Her snapping point was his famous February 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he alleged that the State Department was riddled with Reds.
“One day Joe said, ‘Margaret, you seem to be worried about what I am doing,’” she recollected. “I said, ‘Yes, Joe. I want to see the proof.’”
McCarthy: “But I have shown you the photostatic copies.”
Smith: “Perhaps I’m stupid, Joe. But they don’t prove a thing to me that backs up your charges.”
On June 1, 1950, Smith took to the Senate floor to denounce her Wisconsin colleague without naming him, or needing to: “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: The right to criticize; The right to hold unpopular beliefs; The right to protest; The right of independent thought.” Completing her opening remarks, and trying to calm what she’d concede was a trembling stomach, the ordinarily-tentative Smith read a “Declaration of Conscience” that called for comity and bipartisanship and was co-signed by six moderate Republicans.
It was a 15-minute act of gallantry and guts, one that McCarthy listened to mutely. But his recriminations were swift and stinging. Syndicated columnist and McCarthy pal Westbrook Pegler called Smith, the first female elected to both houses of Congress, “a Moses in nylons” who “took advantage ... of her sex.”
Others gossiped that the two had been romantically involved, or that she’d hoped to be, and the speech was payback. McCarthy had the most lancing jibe, calling Smith and her co-signatories “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”
His words were reinforced by spleenful action. In 1951, McCarthy kicked Smith off the subcommittee he’d named her to. Decrying her as a “puny politician” and a “thief” of public funds, he helped enlist a candidate to run against her in the 1954 Republican primary, procured backing from his moneyed Texas benefactors, marshaled pals in the press and then feigned that he’d had no part in any of it. While she easily won the primary, she managed just 59% of the vote in the general election, down from 71% in 1948. As she later admitted, the ordeal left her “feeling bedraggled, unappreciated, and sorely in need of a change in focus.” Which was how most of McCarthy’s targets felt.
And that wasn’t the only price she paid for her daring stand against the man whose name would become an ism — in this case a synonym for reckless accusation and political double-dealing — and whose rulebook Trump has been following. President Dwight Eisenhower, who showed none of the mettle Smith did during his first years in the White House, shunned the Pine Tree senator once she became McCarthy’s foe.
Today, however, her opposition to McCarthy is the single thing Smith is most remembered and cherished for by Mainers and others. And her "Declaration of Conscience" address is, along with McCarthy’s jeremiad in Wheeling, the most famous of that Red Scare era.
Are you listening, Charlie?