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The modern retelling of the story of David and Goliath is the story of Joe McCarthy and Margaret Chase Smith.
She was slight, dignified and frail with white hair and refined features, looking every inch the school teacher she had been. The first time I saw her I was a boy running the senator's elevator in the U.S. Capitol. I tried to direct her to the public cars until one of my colleagues pointed out she was the senior senator from the state of Maine.
Margaret Chase Smith had distinguished herself by being the only woman elected to serve in both houses of Congress. She had served in the House of Representatives for eight years before being elected to the Senate in 1948, receiving the greatest total vote majority in Maine history.
She had a solid record and was well-respected by her colleagues for her independence and commitment to public service. She took her job seriously, holding a perfect attendance record in Congress, as well as the Senate's all-time voting record with 2,941 consecutive roll call votes.
Joe McCarthy was Margaret Chase Smith's polar opposite. He was coarse and flamboyant, with a menacing countenance. There was nothing frail or refined about the junior senator from Wisconsin.
When McCarthy came to Washington in l950, there was nothing remarkable about him. His primary claim to fame was that he had beat another Republican of some repute, Robert La Follette Jr., in the primary. La Follette underestimated McCarthy and hardly bothered to campaign, apparently thinking his reputation would carry him through. McCarthy won by less than 5,000 votes.
In contrast to Smith, McCarthy had no previous Congressional experience and little apparent legislative interest. He arrived in Washington as a great unknown and remained unknown for first three years of his service. He was a run-of-the-mill senator looking for an issue to ride.
McCarthy found his cause at a meeting with his advisors in the Colony Restaurant in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the meeting was to find an issue that would carry McCarthy to re-election. After considering and discarding a number of others, the group chose communism.
The Alger Hiss trial was then in full swing and attracting a lot of media attention in the United States. Communism had spread to China. About the same time, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, raising concern for the communist threat abroad.
"That's it," McCarthy is reported to have said. "The government is full of Communists. We can hammer away at them." Less than a month later, McCarthy tested his strategy before the Republican Women's Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. "I have in my hand a list of 205 cases of individuals who appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party," he said. The speech went over so well and attracted so much attention there was no turning back. McCarthy repeated his assertions on the Senate floor, suggesting the State Department was full of Communists and communist sympathizers.
Overnight McCarthy emerged from the back rows of the Senate to center stage. Within a matter of weeks, his name was known everywhere, and he became the dominant figure in American politics. As his biographer, Richard H. Rovere, noted, the key to McCarthy's success was the sensational nature of his charges. "Simply put," Rovere wrote, "his charges were wilder than any of his peers and too sensational for the press and the public to ignore."
To cover this reckless approach, McCarthy relied on senatorial courtesy and the privileges of his office. Knowing he was immune from suit for anything he might say in the course of Senate hearings or in statements he made on the Senate floor, he let it fly. There were no limits to the scope of his accusations.
Such was McCarthy's power that a simple sentence of his was enough to destroy a person's reputation. He held two presidentsHarry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhowercaptive in their conduct of the nation's affairs. From l950 through late l954, neither could act without considering how McCarthy would react. Though no one he accused of being a Communist was ever found guilty, he ruined careers, friendships and marriages. People he named were blacklisted, unable to find employment and subjected to public ridicule and suspicion. Understandably, no one dared stand up to him for fear of his reprisal.
Margaret Chase Smith was the one exception.
On June 1, 1950, she took to the Senate floor for a "declaration of conscience." She said she would speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition, a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.ö
"I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some real soul searching and weigh our consciences as to the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America and the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges," she said. "I think it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. I think it is high time we remembered that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only to freedom of speech but also to trial by jury instead of trial by accusation."
"As a United States senator," she concluded, "I am not proud of the way in which the Senate has been made a publicity platform for irresponsible sensationalism. I am not proud of the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle. . . . I do not like the way the Senate has been made a rendezvous for vilification, for selfish political gain at the sacrifice of individual reputations and national unity. I am not proud of the way we smear outsiders from the floor of the Senate and hide behind a cloak of congressional immunity."
Embarrassed and perhaps emboldened by Senator Chase's courage, other members of the government began to speak up in the months that followed and question McCarthy's credibility. The tide turned, culminating in McCarthy's censure by the Senate in l954 for "conduct that tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."
Stripped of his credibility and no longer taken seriously by the press, McCarthy disappeared from the public eye as quickly as he emerged. He began to drink heavily and died at the age of forty-eight.
Margaret Chase Smith served three more terms in the Senate and became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president of the United States at the Republican Convention in l964. On July 6, l989, President George H. W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, "for her commitment to truth and honesty in government and in America."
¬2004. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Heart of America: Ten Core Values That Make Our Country Greatby Bill Halamandaris. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.