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Sen. Susan Collins has modeled herself after her hero, Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, one of the icons of Maine political history. Collins has cited a visit with Smith as an inspiration for her political career.
It was Smith’s willingness to speak out against a leading senator of her own party at a time of political fear that showed her strong convictions in a difficult political climate. That happened on June 1, 1950, when she denounced Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist witch hunts on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
McCarthy, a hard-drinking Irishman from Wisconsin, had led the charge against Communists in federal government, often smearing the reputation of innocent people and ruining lives with false accusations in a time when fear of home-grown Communism was powerful.
Smith took on McCarthy in a famous “Declaration of Conscience” that she delivered on the Senate floor, with McCarthy sitting two rows behind her.
The senator from Skowhegan grabbed national attention as she warned of the “Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear” in the era of McCarthy’s attacks.
Those words are relevant in this strange campaign season, when Donald Trump has ridden to the Republican presidential nomination by stirring up a wave of fear and bigotry.
Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric has pitted people against each other, and he has profited from bigotry through his flirtation with the racism of David Duke. His campaign thrives on the attack of personal insults, and he is now sparring with the Muslim parents of an American serviceman killed in battle. His need to fight back over every perceived insult reflects a personality quirk that has led many other Republicans, including Lindsay Graham and the Bush family, to withhold their endorsement.
Yet Collins continues to agonize about whether to endorse Trump. Like her leaders in Congress, she sometimes criticizes what he says, while failing to take a stand on his fitness to be president. She has said she will watch the campaign play out, and is in no hurry to make a decision.
Collins hopes the leopard will change its spots. She described Trump’s convention acceptance speech, where he said that he alone could solve America’s problems, as an “improvement over his past efforts.”
Collins has talked on both sides of the issue. She has said she worked well with Hillary Clinton in the Senate and at one point suggested she might vote for the Democratic candidate, but later said it was unlikely.
She may be calculating that Donald Trump is popular in Maine, and could win one electoral vote in the 2nd Congressional District, since Maine divides its electoral votes. And it’s possible he could also win the two votes that go to the statewide popular vote winner. And if Collins decides to run for governor in 2018 (a strong rumor that lingers out there, although she has not confirmed it) she could face a challenge from her party’s tea party wing, which backs Trump.
There is an odd connection between the attacks by McCarthy and the rise of Trump. It runs through the story of a controversial lawyer named Roy Cohn, who steered McCarthy’s red-baiting campaign as committee counsel, and later became an influential New York power broker, tied to organized crime, who courted scandals of all kinds and was finally disbarred. He died in 1986.
In the 1970s, Cohn became a mentor to a young Donald Trump, and began steering him through the world of New York power. Trump admired Cohn’s toughness, and appreciated his take-no-prisoners style and they became friends. As reporter Wayne Barrett wrote in “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall,” in describing the influence of Roy Cohn, “I look at (Trump) and I see Roy. Both of them are attack dogs.”
Trump’s attack dog-style was inspired by the man who guided McCarthy, whose slanderous campaign was criticized by Margaret Chase Smith. In the spirit of her mentor, Collins should reject Trump and those tactics.
Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.