The Lady From Maine. Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington

When I was growing up in Maine, there were certain constants.  There would be lots of snow in winter, lots of lobster in summer, and lots of Senator Margaret Chase Smith year round.  I'm older now, there's less snow, which I like, and I never cared much for lobster, but in this most disgusting of election years, I sure wish that the very sensible Senator Smith were still around.

Let's digress for a moment before I get  to the point of this post. Even here in sensible no-frills Maine, a state of only a million or so people spread out over a large geographical area---where it sometimes seems everyone knows everyone else---we are not immune from the relentless nuttiness and nastiness that has characterized this election year, more so than any other that I can remember.   Maine is traditionally a politically moderate and tolerant state, and whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge, things were always pretty much business as usual.  No longer.  The Palin and Tea Party wings, strident, proud, loud, and not always logical (like almost never),  have taken over the Republican party, shoving its moderate wing out of the way.  The moderate wing, marginalized, has mostly gone Democrat or Independent.   A loud mouthed, foul tempered buffoon who could not have made it past the primaries a few years ago is the Republican candidate for Governor.  His campaign has been characterized by tantrums, loud invective, and half baked populist claptrap that sounds good to people who have been listening to too much talk radio, but makes little sense when actually put to the logic test.

You may be thinking 'ah, the Dilettante is obviously one of those bleeding heart liberal Democrats'.  Yes, proudly so, but sad to report, the Democratic party in Maine is also not safe from my contempt this year  The state has been controlled in recent years by the Democrats. The most recent governor, a former senator, has been the most tepid, invisible and ineffective in my forty years of following state  politics.  The current Democratic candidate for Governor, the first woman house majority leader, is sensible and polite, unlike her Republican opponent.  Unfortunately, she is also a business as usual politician with few strong ideas. She has also been dragged down by a new nastier side to the Democratic party, apparently trying to emulate the Republican attack methods.  She is splitting the majority moderate vote with  an Independent candidate, a lawyer and former lobbyist, who is by far the smartest kid in the room, and the one with the best articulated and sensible ideas.  He has also been running the politest campaign.  Sadly, sensible doesn't fly this year.  Long story short, although only something like 35 per cent of the voters want the mean candidate, the other sixty five per cent is split in the polls, in order, between the the Independent, the Democrat, the fringe candidates, and our old friend, the undecided.  Only a miracle will elect one of the sensible candidates.

 'Fair View', the Smith estate in Skowhegan

Which brings us to Margaret Chase Smith.  She was born in 1897 in Skowhegan, Maine, a pleasant small city on the Kennebec River, the last big town on the Northern route to Canada, whose other chief claim to fame is having been the location for Paul Newman's film version of  Empire Falls.  She was of that first generation of woman who came to age with the suffrage movement and the right to vote.  As a young woman, she worked as a teacher in a one room school house, as a telephone operator and as communications director for the local paper.  She married Clyde Smith, a respected local politician in 1930, and went to live in his big old second Empire mansion in Skowhegan, all varnished woodwork and stately gloom.  When he was elected to to Congress, they went to live in Washington, where in due course Mr. Smith suffered a heart attack, and before he died, urged that his wife, who had served as his assistant, be elected to his seat, and in 1940, she was, becoming the first woman in Maine to serve in the house.  In 1948, she ran successfully for the Senate, becoming the first woman to serve in both houses.  As a senator, she had a long and successful career, ranking 11th in seniority, serving until 1973.  She was famed for her clear speech and thought.  She said what she meant, and meant what she said.

 Senator Smith at home on Newark Street in Washington

With fellow representatives Jessie Sumner Clare Booth Luce and Frances Bolton and Speaker of the house Sam Rayburn
And here we get at last to what brought moves me to write this post.  As I look with horror at the money unleashed by the actions of the Roberts Supreme Court, now flowing even into local Maine elections, and consider the Palinesque nuttiness that has overtaken the Republican party, I have found myself thinking a great deal about Senator Smith's finest moment.   It was June of 1950.  The country was in the grip of McCarthyism, red-baiting and communist witch hunts, and madness and fear dominated the political scene.  Sound familiar?  The difference was that someone from within McCarthy's own party was willing to stand up and say 'enough is enough'.  That someone was Senator Smith, and her 'Declaration of Conscience' is considered one of the finest speeches of the 20th century.   A plea for a return to common sense and fairness in the Republican party, it also, without naming him, took direct aim at Senator McCarthy's tactics, and was the beginning of the end of his reign of terror.  It was a brave and lucid speech.  Senator Smith once famously said that her method in speaking was to speak very slowly, very clearly, using simple words and give her listener plenty of time to think about her points, all delivered in her clear, lady-like Maine diction.  In it she stated her belief that the Republican party was necessary to the well being of the country and the two party system, but that: "to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.  The nation sorely needs a Republican victory.  But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear".  

'Senator Smith with Leverett Saltonstall and Lyndon Johnson

In the senate, she became a foreign relations and military specialist.  Her achievements include the Armed Services Integration Act, granting women permanent status in the military.  In 1964, Smith became the first woman to be nominated as a presidential candidate for a major party in the primaries.  Her wonderful dry speech announcing  her decision to run may be heard by clicking here.  Her campaign song, decidedly pre-feminist and sung by Hildegarde, can be heard http://www.mcslibrary.org/program/library/hildegard.wav

Although she worked hard in the New Hampshire primary, traveling 5,000 miles to visit 50 towns, she garnered only 2,812 votes from our neighboring New England state (spending only $250 in the process!).
Undaunted, she went on to the Illinois primaries, where she covered nearly as much territory, this time spending only $82.   Yet, in Illinois, she astounded all the pundits and even her own campaign manager by receiving 208,000 votes, 26% of the total.   She had made history.

The kitchen of the new house, as it appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1956.

In 1972, in her mid-seventies, she was defeated for re-election.  Conservatives found her refusal to support Nixon's Supreme court nominees too liberal, and liberals found her support of the Vietnam War too conservative.  She retired to the simple ranch house she had built on a bluff overlooking the Kennebec River, and died there in 1995.  Her house is now a museum with library adjoining.   The house, designed by Harriman Associates, will win no design awards, but is a perfect time capsule of its era, and a moving testimony to the remarkable woman who lived there.

 The Living Room (MCS Library)
Senator Smith entertains President Eisenhower, 80 guests and 150 members of the press corps for lobster dinner at home in Skowhegan (MCS Library)

I am not the only one who has been thinking longingly of Senator Smith and her high-minded politics lately.  Here is Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, on Margaret Chase Smith and the Declaration of Conscience.

 I'll be spending the next few days in mourning for the loss of commons sense in politics, but I promise, nothing but houses and decoration for a few weeks after this political interlude.


Raina Cox said...

I adore you so much more (if that were even possible) because you found a way to deftly weave interior design and architecture into a political discussion.

columnist said...

As a non American I find it very sad that your country is so polarised, and that the way of expressing views by both left and right of politics is so violent, and largely quite ignorant, certainly of both sides of the argument. I think I'm not alone in seeing this unfold, and wondering where it will take America. Clearly you, and many hundreds of thousands of sensible Americans think the same way. There has to be a middle ground.

Furthermore in Western European terms "Liberalism" is not a dirty word, but it seems to be one that equates to "Communism" in America. Indeed we believe America was founded on liberalism: "Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, "of freedom") is the belief in the importance of individual liberty and equal rights". The opposite would be Fascism; perhaps there is a fork in your country's road. I wonder which one it will take.

Toby Worthington said...

Well, I for one found your political interlude positively
riveting. Being old enough to remember a time when "Republican" candidates would never dream of descending to today's depths of pandering to the ignorant masses, it was refreshing to be reminded of someone as well-rounded in outlook as was Margaret Chase Smith. (Sorry for that ungrammatical sentence.
Frustration and bewilderment will have that effect.)

The Ancient said...


It's fine to lament the passing of Liberal Republicans, but remember that Conservative Democrats have met the very same fate. Each batch has been gradually winnowed out by the more extreme, ideological elements in their own parties, who are increasingly intolerant of any form of dissent from Received Opinion (as they conceive it.)

P.S. I feel obliged to point out that if Katrina vanden Heuvel woke up to find herself editor of The Nation in 1940, 1950, 1960 or 1970, she would have regularly commissioned articles attacking the likes of Margaret Chase Smith. For her to praise Smith now is like the editor of National Review lamenting the loss of figures like Sam Nunn. The nicest thing you can call it is "disingenuous."

The Down East Dilettante said...

Raina, the Gods of Decoration and Architecture must be served at every opportunity

Columnist, thank you for the perspective. It is a very sad state of affairs here.

Toby, Thank you.

Ancient, I thought I had made the point that I was lamenting the loss of well rounded and informed thought--and the willingness to meet in the center for the common good, on both sides of the aisle. I left the Democratic party on Monday and am now registered as an Independent.

As to The Nation, I like to think that Vanden Heuvel would have admired Chase's stand on red baiting at any time, despite the revulsion you correctly state she would feel about other Chase policies. My own fuzzy memory is that Chase was willingly bi-partisan on many things. And that said, I still lament the populist stupidity (there is no other word) that has overtaken the Elephant, just as I despair when I hear the patronizing tones of the Democrats (and even more, their new found nastiness, which has always been the province of the ill informed and closed mind.)

Toby Worthington said...

Forgot to add a thank you for having unearthed Ms
Chase-Smith's jaunty campaign song as perpetrated
by the irrepressible, faintly absurd chanteuese extraordinaire, Hildegarde. If anything can take us back to another era and an altogether different mentality, it was the odd choice of Hildegarde to convey a political message~with satin gloves on.

The Down East Dilettante said...

TW, you never ever miss a detail

The Ancient said...


I'm sorry -- I get a little bat-guano-crazy at the current state of domestic politics.

As for her house, wasn't she in a wheel chair for some long while?

(If that ever happens to me, my houses are going for tuppence, just to get somewhere flat.)

((Back in the days when the world was still truly flat, my mother used to joke that as soon as I was off to school, she would commit herself to an old folks' home -- so that she would never again be bothered with domestic details.))

Rose C'est La Vie said...

Thank you for introducing me to the estimable, decent and intelligent Margaret Chase Smith as an antidote to the egregious Palin. You just have to compare their spectacles (see the video clip). MCS's meant business whereas Palin always puts me in mind of one of those cheesy ad models in the optician's window, staring vapidly at the bright lights. Don't apologise for the politics, I found it fascinating. Tell me, do, who won the election for Maine governor.

Janet said...

Having been a registered Independent in Maine until I was forced to choose a party in DC (as if there is really any CHOOSING here), I have long rejoiced in Maine's independent spirt. Sigh. Where have all the flowers gone. . .

home before dark said...

Kansas has gone all republican of the most conservative manner. We now have the C-Street evangelical Sam Brownback for gov and the new secretary of state is the nutcake who wrote Arizona's anti-immigration bill. It is a sad, sorry state of events. I mourn the loss of statesmanship (although I might argue for statepersonship) and the time when compromise was seen as doing what was right for our country vs this crazy ideological warfare we conduct for politics.

Dr. Dre said...

Loved the picture of Mrs. Smith with the other prominent women of the House of Representatives. Please do some research on Frances Bolton, OH Congresswoman for many years, along with one of her sons, and they made up the only mother-son team to serve in the Congress. Her Standard Oil forebears were early denizens of Palm Beach and of Prouts Neck ME, hailing from Cleveland OH. The family still lives large but has set a wonderful example by giving generously thru the years (centuries, actually) to various cultural and educational institutions.

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