Column: Senator vs. Demagogue, and history’s verdict

Bravo to the Republican senator who stood tall in the chamber and assailed a Republican demagogue for his disgraceful reliance on “the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.” Bravo to the senator for insisting, with virtually no support from cowered colleagues, that “it’s high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul-searching, for us to weigh our consciences.”

I’m referring, of course, to Margaret Chase Smith.

It’s great that Jeff Flake stood up to Donald Trump’s serial lies and dangerous toxicity, but, lest we forget our history (and too often, we don’t even know it), Flake’s act was not unprecedented. Sixty-seven years ago Chase was a junior senator from Maine, the only member of her gender, and unlike virtually everyone around her, she’d already had enough of colleague Joseph McCarthy.

At that point, in June 1950, McCarthy had only been on the national scene for a few months, smearing people as “Communists” and “fellow travelers,” destroying innocents’ reputations, forcing them from their jobs, prompting a number to commit suicide. Rank-and-file Republicans on Capitol Hill barely uttered a peep, but Chase was ill-suited by temperament to follow the herd.

So she wrote a speech that she titled “Declaration and Conscience,” stood on the Senate floor, and said: “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.” She extolled the GOP’s proud history as the party of Lincoln, “yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove ... disastrous to this nation.”

She urged her Republican colleagues to be “Americans first” and to publicly acknowledge that McCarthy “threatens the security and stability of our country.” She said, “It is high time that we all stop being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques.” She said the Republican Party should not seek victory “through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance.”

Flake’s rhetoric on Tuesday was similar. But the big difference, however, is that Flake did so while declaring that he was quitting the chamber. Chase didn’t go anywhere. She stayed in the Senate and kept fighting.

She took a lot of hits. McCarthy, who, like Trump, could never abide an attack, complained that “there are too damn many women in the Senate.” (There was one.) Chase managed to get seven fellow Republicans to sign her anti-McCarthy statement (today, seven would be considered a tsunami), and McCarthy retaliated with Trumpian snark, calling Chase and her supporters “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Chase was rumored to be on Dwight Eisenhower’s short list for veep in 1952, but the McCarthy heat (plus her gender) made her unacceptable; and when she ran for re-election, McCarthy worked, albeit unsuccessfully, to sabotage her. But she hung in, waging her multi-year fight against McCarthy mostly alone, until finally McCarthy imploded in 1954 by trying to smear the U.S. Army, at which point Chase’s colleagues finally grew spines and voted to censure him.

Her fight was long and lonely, but still she persisted. She liked to say, “The right way is not always the popular and easy way.” She didn’t quit the Senate; she stayed and won history’s verdict. And what she said in 1950 — with respect to a man who posed a clear and present danger to this nation — has more meaning than ever in 2017: “It is high time that we stop thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats and started thinking patriotically as Americans.”

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com.