Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine initially thought her GOP colleague Sen. Joe McCarthy might be onto something with his crusade to root out subversives in the State Department. After all, post-World War II, concern was high on issues of national security. But when she examined his questionable “evidence,” Smith instead worried that his bully-boy act would be the true subversion of American values.
Though her June 1950 “Declaration of Conscience,” delivered on the Senate floor and supported by six other Republican senators, never mentioned McCarthy by name, it was clear Smith meant the Wisconsin senator when she said: “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism.”
And though Smith certainly wanted Republicans to win, she said, “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”
While Democratic President Harry S. Truman praised her words, retaliation was swift from McCarthy, who dismissed the effort from “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs” — proving inane name-calling did not originate with Donald Trump.
Smith was removed as a member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, replaced by an ambitious senator from California, Richard M. Nixon. But four years later, she got to cast a vote for McCarthy’s censure after the beginning of his end, the moment U.S. Army lawyer Joseph Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
Cut to today, and the opportunity for members of today’s GOP to take a stand.
I’m talking, of course, about the horrific assault on Paul Pelosi, the husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was reportedly the target of a disturbed man who believed he was a patriot, a man fueled by a toxic brew of conspiracy theories about minorities, QAnon, the lie of a stolen election and what were once fringe ideas that are now manna for many in the Republican base.
You would think that every human being could agree that bashing in the skull of an 82-year-old man with a hammer is bad.
You would be wrong.
Power at all costs is paramount, with decency being kicked to the curb.
A Declaration of Cowardice would be more fitting for those who mumble condolences, but not too loudly or sincerely, or peddle absurdities that blame everyone and everything but refuse to admit that the violent rhetoric of Republican leaders and candidates might have had something to do with it.
The suspect’s calls for “Nancy” echo the feral howls of insurrectionists as they roamed and desecrated the halls of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, looking to harm her, the true patriot who took charge that day, whose goal was to protect her colleagues, her staff and the peaceful transition of power.
What the intruder to the Pelosi household planned, according to what law enforcement has said were his own words, was unimaginable — the torture and maiming of the third in line to the presidency. And apparently there were others on his to-do list.
It makes sense he would start with Nancy Pelosi, the supervillain of Republican fantasies and attack ads for decades, the subject of unhinged rants by the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whose voice will gain legitimacy if the GOP gains control of the House of Representatives.
When House Minority Whip Steve Scalise was shot, Democratic leaders didn’t create memes or make jokes, as Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake did regarding the attack on Paul Pelosi, drawing approving laughs from audience members content to join her in the muck.
After the earlier attack, I don’t recall vile conspiracy theories like those retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. Maybe he learned it from Dad, who, not to be outdone, added his own lies to the conversation. Elon Musk, proving that he’s the fox guarding the Twitter henhouse he now rules, shared and then deleted misinformation. With the torrent of racist and antisemitic slurs flooding the platform, it’s pretty clear no one can count on him to reform political discourse.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was supposed to be a different kind of Republican, but his partisan swipe while Paul Pelosi lay injured in the hospital proved otherwise.
This from the crew that claims the mantle of a twisted caricature of Christianity. I last heard North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson at a conference sponsored by the North Carolina Faith & Freedom Coalition, spewing insults at anyone who did not subscribe to his worldview.
He has resurfaced with a Facebook post with the message, “I’m sorry Paul I don’t believe you or the press!!!!” and the image of a Halloween “attacker” costume that was as crude and witless as you would imagine.
No one seems to be willing to stand up for the values that should be bedrock, but now, in some quarters, are for suckers.
Every time leaders sink lower, it becomes acceptable to try on depravity, like a rancid suit of clothing, and discover it fits quite nicely. That’s much easier than judging those of different races or faiths or political parties as human beings.
In the past week or so, a man has pleaded guilty to threatening Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California and his staff, and three men have been found guilty of supporting a kidnapping plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat running for reelection.
But by all means, Republicans, don’t think twice about pouring more millions into labeling Nancy Pelosi the root of all evil.
It’s ironic, considering it was Pelosi who on Jan. 6 showed concern for Mike Pence, more than anyone in his own party or the crowds clamoring to hang him. Pence’s own boss wanted him to be a toady, rather than fulfill his duty as vice president.
Politically, I doubt Pence and Pelosi agree on much of anything. But, in that moment, Pelosi was being decent.
“I worry about you being in that Capitol room,” Pelosi told Pence. “God bless you.”
When asked about the legacy she would leave, Margaret Chase Smith correctly predicted that her speech elevating American ideals over party, a choice that cost her at the time, would rank high, and she seemed proud of that.
Will today’s Republicans ever be able to say the same?
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.