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Monday, October 23, 2017

Her name was Margaret Chase Smith, a Mainer from small Skowhegan. Senator Smith to you and me, she was the first woman to run for president from a major political party.

In 1964, the Maine senator lost the Republican Party nomination to right-wing Barry Goldwater, but not the respect she carried in Congress: eight years in the House and 24 years in the Senate.

It’s easy to forget other women tried to crack that glass ceiling long before Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee was preceded by a class act from the other side of the aisle.

The only woman senator truly took a stand of courage on the floor, giving one of the greatest Senate speeches for the ages — on June 1, 1950.

The Declaration of Conscience speech was a winner from the day she delivered it.

“The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as ‘Communists’ or ‘Fascists’ by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,” Smith stated. “The American people are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and guilty people whitewashed.”

The liberal Republican, always with a rose, was known as the Lady from Maine in the Senate. In fact, she was a freshman senator when she spoke out against a national scourge.

Smith knew whom she was taking on: Joseph McCarthy, Republican senator from Wisconsin, at work brewing malice and slander against so-called “Communists.” He would ruin many blacklisted lives before he was done with his witch-hunting ways.

June 1, 1950 was early days, four years before an Army lawyer, Joseph Welch, famously asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Smith made the first, swift cut in grand words, knowing six or seven senators were with her. This from a woman who only had a high school education, the daughter of a barber.

The Declaration backstory has a beauty of its own. On her way to the floor, Smith rode the Senate trolley with McCarthy by chance. He noted she looked serious and asked, “Are you going to make a speech?”

“Yes, and you will not like it,” she answered. She then gave the soaring speech while McCarthy listened to every word. She did not speak his name, observing Senate etiquette. He silently left when she was done.

The Lady from Maine confronted the biggest bully in school, town and country.

The prescient Declaration resonates now in our national security state. Its eloquence won praise from Americans, notably President Harry Truman, who told the Maine senator, “One of the finest things that has happened in Washington in all my years.”

Most vivid in her speech: “I do not want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was a younger colleague, cutting a figure in the Senate. The New England delegation was known for liberalism and independence across party lines.

On the dark noonday of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963, Senator Smith laid a rose across Kennedy’s Senate desk. The desk had gone to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. He was called from the chamber when he first heard the blinding word about his brother.

As America grieved, the pressure was all on President Lyndon B. Johnson, formerly the Texan leader of the Senate. He phoned Smith in the cloakroom after the tragedy. Her personal assistant sent me this transcription. Between his Southern blandishments and her Maine reserve, affection flows.

MCS: Aren’t you kind to call.

LBJ: I miss seeing you there on that front row.

MCS: Well, come on up and see us.

LBJ: You are my sweet girl and a mighty, mighty big patriot and we think of you.

MCS: Most important at the moment. You are doing a wonderful job and want to keep on doing it.

LBJ: I am gonna do the best I can, honey.

MCS: You got an awful lot of friends up here.

Senator Smith lost in 1972 — was it age (74) or ties with President Nixon with the tide turning against the Vietnam War?

The Lady from Maine, whose elegant portrait graces the mint-green hall off the Senate floor, speaks as a champion for conscience. Always.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons.