OBITUARIES: Margaret Chase Smith
Saturday 03 June 1995
It is revealing that this, the first truly powerful and independent American woman politician (as opposed to the many women who had previously had political influence without holding political office), should have been in many ways such an unthreatening figure. Grey-haired, socially conservative and charming in an old-fashioned way, Margaret Chase Smith seemed more at home in the world evoked in Thornton Wilder's sentimental celebration of Main Street America, Our Town, than in the age of MS magazine and feminist demands for women's power.
She originally won her seat in the House because she was the secretary and widow of the previous incumbent, Representative Clyde H. Smith. But after serving four two-year terms in the House, she was the first woman in history to be elected to the Senate in her own right, without being nominated to fill a vacancy. Affectionately known, in the men's club that the Senate was in her years as a senator, as "the lady from Maine", she chose as her political trademark a red rose.
A barber's daughter from Skowhegan, a milltown in central Maine, she completed her formal education when she graduated from Skowhegan High School, at the age of 18 in 1916, the year before the United States entered the First World War.
After her defeat in 1972 by the Democrat William Hathaway, Smith returned to Skowhagan and taught in the local junior college and devoted herself to establishing a library to house her papers there. She was popular with ordinary voters of both parties in Maine, and she was highly respected in Washington, where she served on the Republican policy committee until ejected by the rising power of the conservative Right.
In 1950, at the height of the fear spread by Senator McCarthy's wild charges of Communism here, there and everywhere, Smith was one of the few Republicans to take the senator on. On 1 June she rose on the Senate floor to read a statement, signed by six other Republican senators, which attacked "certain elements" in their party for trying to exploit "fear, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance" for political purposes. This statement, known as the "Declaration of Conscience", required considerable political courage in the context and at the time, and earned Smith lasting resentment from the Right and lasting respect from everyone else.
She was specially appreciated for her independent-minded performance as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Her basic political orientation was that of a traditional small-town New England Republican. But she was capable of demonstrating this independence of mind as she did in the great debate on deploying the Sentinel Antiballistic Missile in 1967.
The Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, was known to be lukewarm about appropriating tens of billions of dollars for system whose utility was at best marginal. But with the hotly contested 1968 presidential election round the corner, several presidential hopefuls, including Richard Nixon, the presumptive Republican candidate, pressed for money to be appropriated for the ABM. These were, one historian commented, "political warheads whose punch was measured in megavotes, not megatons", and Smith - allying herself on this occasion mainly with Democrats - bravely spoke out against the project.
That was not the only time she showed her independence, or her willingness to vote with the Democrats. In 1959 the Eisenhower administration, with which Smith found herself in general quite comfortable, nominated Admiral Lewis Strauss, a former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, as Secretary of Commerce. Strauss was offensive to many Democrats for several reasons, not least what they saw as his unfair treatment of the brilliant scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, when the latter was accused of being a security risk. The Democrats were out to "get" Strauss, with Lyndon Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, playing a subtle game and leaving the issue to an open vote. Eisenhower vowed "to use every single influence" he had to win the nomination.
Smith resisted considerable pressure and voted, with one other Republican, to reject the nomination, the first time a cabinet appointee had been rejected by the Senate since 1925. An eyewitness still remembers the shocked but audible "God damn!" from Senator Barry Goldwater when Smith cast her vote against.
Five years later, Barry Goldwater was the standard bearer of a new conservative Republicanism, and Margaret Chase Smith was in the lists against him. She enjoyed only a brief moment of glory, when she received over a quarter of the votes in the Illinois primary; Goldwater won almost two-thirds.
She remained a respected and very well-liked figure in the congressional Republican party, but in truth, from the Goldwater nomination on, the tide in her party was running against moderates, and especially against eastern moderates, and her defeat in 1972, the year of a near-landslide for the Republican presidential candidate, Nixon, was one of the signs that the era of moderate Republicanism was over.
Margaret Chase, politician: born Skowhegan, Maine 14 December 1897; member, House of Representatives 1941-48; Senator for Maine 1949-73; married 1930 Clyde H. Smith (died 1940); died Skowhegan 29 May 1995.
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