By William Patten
“Fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear” – these were the four horsemen of calumny a woman from Skowhegan used to expose Sen. Joe McCarthy on June 1, 1950.
Sen. Margaret Chase Smith was alone. She was the only female in the Senate, and she had been there for only 10 years. But she had had enough. She was sickened by the behavior of one of the most powerful men in America. And she alone had the guts in her “declaration of conscience” to call him on his sleazy tactics.
McCarthy had so brow-beaten his colleagues in the Senate that none of them dared stand up to him. Congress seemed paralyzed by fear. Fueled by the attention he gathered in the national media, McCarthy had been on a rampage of demagoguery destroying people’s reputations without any regard for truth or common decency. He had brazenly bullied his way to prominence in American politics by spreading false accusations of communist sympathies, capitalizing on people’s fear of being seen as “soft on communism.”
A fierce anticommunist and Republican herself, Smith stood up and challenged McCarthy. In what she called her “declaration of conscience,” she attacked the vicious politics of insinuation that McCarthy had perfected, with its reckless charges and mocking derision. Those who “shout the loudest about Americanism,” she pointed out, are invariably the ones who forget the core principles of the rights set forth by America’s founders.
Why was it a woman who had the courage to start the process of unmasking a demagogue like McCarthy? Do women have a special sensitivity to the phoniness of macho bravado and grandiose pronouncements? My English father, who personally had seen Hitler hypnotizing the crowds in Nuremberg in the 1930s, noted in his diary with mild surprise that among his many friends in London, it was the women who distrusted Hitler more than the men.
Today, the woman who holds Smith’s seat in the Senate is the Republican Susan Collins. In words not far dissimilar from Smith’s, Sen. Collins stated last August that she could not vote for Donald Trump.
In addition to Trump’s “complete disregard for human decency,” Collins noted his “cruel comments,” his “attacks directed at people who could not respond in kind” and how “he opts to mock the vulnerable and inflame prejudices by attacking ethnic and religious minorities.” The charge goes deeper than politics; it addresses the degraded character of the man.
Collins did not make her decision lightly. What she says she values about her party is “the value it has always placed on the worth and dignity of the individual.” What she sees in Trump is a “candidate who will slash and burn and trample anything and anyone he perceives as being in his way or an easy scapegoat.” This includes his trashing little people and handicapped people.
More than half a century after Chase stood up to McCarthy, we see another strong Maine woman standing up to a reincarnation of McCarthy dressed in an Armani suit. In rejecting Trump, Collins reflects an awesome Maine tradition of personal integrity and moral courage.
Tragically, many voters today seem as hypnotized by Trump’s demagoguery as Americans were by McCarthy in the 1950s and the Germans by Hitler in the 1930s. Few Germans found the courage to stand up to Hitler because none of their leaders did. Perhaps the spirit of Smith and the voice of Collins will inspire Americans to greater courage and to patriotism that is more real than slogans.
William Patten is a resident of Mount Desert.