Margaret Chase Smith represented the best in politics and government.
“My creed is that public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation with full recognition that every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration, that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, that honor is to be earned but not bought.”
Smith wrote her creed on Nov. 11, 1953. It ought to be posted all over the Capitols in Augusta and Washington, D.C.
The rose is our nation’s designated flower, thanks to Smith, who wore a single rose pinned to her dress or suit every day she served in the U.S. Senate. That may have misled some to think she was too nice for political hardball, but no one played that game better than she did. Some underestimated her toughness and determination, to their detriment.
It would be most appropriate to put Smith — wearing a red rose — on the $10 bill, if for no other reason than to remind us, every time we look at that bill, of her remarkable achievements for our nation, for women, for all of us, and yes, of her creed and her kindness.
When I was a kid, I saw Smith occasionally in Winthrop, because her sister and her husband, the St. Ledgers, owned a store there. But my first official encounter with the senator was in 1964, when Winthrop’s band represented our state in Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural parade.
My most unforgettable experience with the Smith came in 1969 when I won a 4-H trip to Washington, D.C., and spent a couple of hours with the senator in her office. She seemed to have all the time in the world for us. She had been nominated that year for the presidency, one of many firsts for this Republican woman, and she was my hero. Still is.
When young Margaret graduated from high school in 1916 and took a class field trip to Washington, D.C., women could not vote. She was very ambitious and a hard worker from a young age, but had no interest in politics until she was thrust into her congressional seat when her husband died while serving in that office.
Her “Declaration of Conscience” speech remains a highlight of her career, but she was always able to stand up to bullies and braggarts. Without question the most powerful woman in politics throughout her lengthy career, she served on the most important congressional committees, Appropriations and Armed Services.
My Uncle Phil Searles, who had a distinguished career in the Navy, would tell me how much Smith meant to him and others in the armed services, where she was a special champion of women, an important part of her legacy.
On Dec. 14, 1987, this newspaper published a special eight-page insert celebrating Smith’s 90th birthday, noting “She’s still in charge.” Yes, at the age of 90, she was still very much engaged in life.
The newspaper includes a photo from the New York Daily News, Jan. 28, 1964, when Smith announced her campaign for president. She’s pointing to a note she had just written about the other presidential candidates: “Barry stews, Rocky pursues, (Dicky brews), but Margaret Chase Smith wows and woos with blueberry muffins.”
Russian President Nikita Khrushchev said Smith was “the devil in a disguise of a woman. … She has decided to beat all records of savagery.” All because she’d said the United States needed to demonstrate “nuclear credibility” to the Soviets, and noting that “nothing in political or military history … supports a thesis that it is safer to be weak than strong.”
She practically destroyed Defense Secretary Robert McNamara for lying to her. “If I can’t trust you on the little lies, sir, how will I ever believe you on the big ones?”
I can’t begin to list all of Smith’s firsts in this column, but I particularly loved her daringness. She was the first civilian woman to sail on a U.S. destroyer in wartime. She broke the sound barrier in a U.S. Air Force F-100 Super Sabre fighter. She descended to the depths of the Pacific Ocean aboard a U.S. Navy submarine, of which — I am pretty sure — my uncle was the commander.
Margaret Chase Smith was, above all, honest and dignified. It would be good to remember that these qualities are not inconsistent with political success.