For our second installment of how well behaved women do indeed make history, and poorly behaved ones (like poorly behaving men) tend to make history for all the wrong reasons, this week I am presenting a negative example: Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.
So most folks’ reaction is probably “uh, who?” Senator Smith does have a lot going for her and could probably get put into either category. She was Maine’s first female congressman and first female senator, the first woman ever to serve in both houses of Congress, and wonder of wonders she was in fact a Republican. Thus she simultaneously puts to bed the false beliefs that Republicans absolutely cannot have lady parts, and any idea that I’m going to blindly praise just any Republican. Because more than anything, what Senator Maggie is remembered for is a speech she gave on the floor of the Senate in 1950, referred to as her “Declaration of Conscience” speech (and that’s pretty much the only thing of significance she did there other than being an “independent” and “maverick” voice, which means she gave no end of grief to President Eisenhower). In this speech, without mentioning him by name, Smith loudly and passionately (and quite vitriolically) castigated and condemned the Communist hunts being conducted by her colleague, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who I’m sure you’re heard of. This kind of attack, against a member of her own chamber, nevermind her own party, was largely unprecedented and shocking, and caused Smith to rocket to political stardom. Even she acknowledged it was her greatest achievement. As other squishy Republicans rallied to her side, McCarthy began his descent from patriotic protector of our freedom to raving madman, to be censured by the Senate and not long after to drink himself into an early grave. But, yay for a courageous woman standing up for the rights of the little guys, right? Even when it violated all custom and decorum?
Just one teeny tiny little problem. Joe McCarthy was right.
See, we have the enormous benefit of hindsight now, and after the end of the Cold War we got access to lots of records from the Soviet Union that confirmed that the Soviets had indeed infiltrated all levels of our government and it went much, much deeper than merely smoking out Alger Hiss. Whittaker Chambers (an intellectual forerunner of men like Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe) demonstrated how the Communists stored microfilm in pumpkins to smuggle it out of the country, the Rosenbergs were caught passing nuclear secrets to Moscow, and of course Hiss fled in disgrace, but no, that wasn’t enough evidence for sainted Maggie. Now we know that Joe McCarthy, who stood his ground to the last, was right about over 90% of the claims he made and people he accused and investigated–people who were out to overthrow our government and impose Communism by force and subversion. Way to treat a genuine American hero, Senator.