COLUMN: Musings of a Simple Country Man

Hobie Morris

A Profile in Political Red Rose Courage

By Hobie Morris

If Lincoln were alive today he would be turning over in his grave.  – President Gerald Ford

When a political movement goes off the beam and wanders too close to the edge of demagoguery and fear and fear mongering becomes too tempting as the lure of political advantage outweighs scruple and taste and decency, someone has to step up. – David Nyhan, Boston Globe, May 31, 1995.

For years this simple country man and his wonderful, charming wife Lois corresponded with   a remarkable woman living in Skowhegan, Maine.  When she passed on Memorial Day, 1995, at the age of 97, the footprints she left behind have continued to resonate, inspire and educate.  Her wisdom and incredible courage in time of great anger and divisiveness, such as we have today, are a civics lesson for all Americans.

America’s most revered historian David McCullough, in his book –The American Spirit, pays special homage to this courageous woman.  In a Washington Post interview the author takes special umbrage at the lack of courageous Congressional leadership, especially in the Republican Party and a President, who has seriously devalued the dignity of the Oval Office.  McCullough notes “there is an important precedent for a greater show of leadership.”

Senator Margaret Chase Smith was a first term Republican congressman from Maine.  She would serve 24 years in the Senate and before that 8 years in the House of Representatives.  She was the first woman to win election to both houses of Congress.  For 12 years she was the only woman in the Senate.  Twice she was considered for the Vice Presidency, and in l964 she became a Presidential candidate, receiving 27 first ballot votes at the Republican National Convention.  Until she broke her hip she made almost 3,000 consecutive roll calls.  One time this indefatigable campaigner slipped on ice, broke her arm, had it treated at a nearby hospital and continued her campaigning the same day.  When she was in her 70’s, every weekend she would drive 1,300 miles round trip from Washington to her Maine home and constituency.

On June 1, 1950, with her ever present red rose pinned on her dress, she stood up alone and did what other senators feared to do, which was to criticize fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy.  (A writer once wrote about her that “a red rose was her trademark, a stalwart conscience her beacon.”) Six fellow senators stood silently behind her.   In a fifteen minute talk, she denounced a rogue that men in the Senate considered untouchable.

McCarthy was a sneering bully in trying to suppress Communism and fellow travelers with sensationalist, inquisitorial tactics.  Senator Smith in her “Declaration of Conscience” put a backbone into a Congress that had shamefully allowed itself by a rabble rousing Red hater to be cowed into fear.  No Reds or fellow travelers were ever uncovered, but many careers were destroyed before McCarthy was censored in 1954.  (McCarthy would call Smith and her supporters “snow white and six dwarfs.)

Historian McCullough believed that Senator Smith’s 15 minute address “changed the course of history.”  Even Democratic President Harry Truman would later say to Smith “your Declaration of Conscience was one of the finest things that has happened here in Washington in all my years in the Senate and the White House.”  Even Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey warmly congratulated Senator Smith.  She said to her friend “well, if you feel that way, why don’t you say something too?”  Humphrey was aghast.  “I couldn’t,” he said.  “It would be political suicide.” (Senator Smith actually had a great deal of respect for Senator McCarthy as a person and politician, but she knew he had deep demons that affected him, including alcoholism.)

This simple country man has jotted down a few excerpts from Senator Smith’s memorable address.

“I speak as a Republican.  I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator.  I speak as an American.  I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horseman of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”

“Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America.  It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”

Smith also said that those who shouted loudest about Americanism all too frequently ignore such basic principles of Americanism as “the right to criticize, the right to hold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest, the right of independent thought.”

Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s Declaration of Conscience remains today just as powerful a message to a democracy suffering many of the ills she so eloquently described and proscribed remedies for in a truly remarkable 15-minute Profile in Courage.

This simple country man and his lovely wife, living off the grid in the Brookfield hills, were indeed blessed and honored to be friends with this indomitable conscience of the Senate.

Hobie Morris of Brookfield is a simple country man.

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