Kate Flora: Back when I was in high school, there was a day when we staged mock political debates. I was pretty apolitical back then, but I was thrilled to be chosen to play Margaret Chase Smith. I only have a vague memory of trying to find something to wear that was appropriately “senatorial” and borrowing my mother’s twinset and her pearls. I’m pretty sure I lost the debate. I remember thinking that she was a woman of great integrity and presence, and that Maine was lucky to have a woman of her courage and stature.
I am drawn back to Senator Smith these days for two reasons. First, I recently watched the movie, “Trumbo,” about McCarthy and blacklisting, about a writer having to make a living by selling his scripts under other people’s names, unable even to claim the credit when movies that he’d written won Academy Awards. We writers are often called on to reinvent ourselves, though fortunately not usually for such appalling reasons. Second, because however much I may try to avoid the ugliness of the current political season, it is impossible to avoid the awful rhetoric that passes for political discourse these days.
For those of you who haven’t read it, the speech that Margaret Chase Smith gave on the Senate floor on June 1, 1950, entitled: A Declaration of Conscience, http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/SmithDeclaration.pdf is an excellent reminder of some of our most cherished American values. Speaking in response to Senator McCarthy and his attacks on people he labeled “communists,” she reminded us 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
Speaking of the contest between Republicans and Democrats, she urges that her Republican party has enough genuine issues to win on that it does not need to resort to what she labels “The Four Horsemen of Calumny,” which are: fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear. She expresses the hope that the American people will not uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. She reminds her Republican colleagues that they have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, clarifying issues, and allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens.
The Declaration of Conscience, joined by other senators, declares, in its final paragraph:
It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.
It is comforting, at a time when the rhetoric is about closing our borders, and hating our immigrants or people of different religions, and stifling open-minded debate for fear that it hurts people’s feelings or doesn’t conform to one particular set of values, to remember that Maine has sent clear and courageous messages (Smith was, after all, the only woman in the Senate and was punished for her courage) onto the national stage.
I didn’t win my debate. She didn’t win her bid for the presidency. But more than sixty years later, her wisdom survives. If only we could send her out on the political circuit today.