IT WAS A RAINY WASHINGTON MORNING in June 1950 when Margaret Chase Smith, a first-term Republican senator from Maine, bumped into fellow legislator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. McCarthy, the country’s ranking political bully, had recently embarked on an innuendo-filled crusade against alleged Communists in government. “Margaret,” she recalled him saying, “you look awfully glum this morning.” Smith responded in a determined Yankee twang, “I’m making a speech today. And you’re not going to like it.”
She was right. Smith, who died May 29 at age 97 at her home in Skowhegan, Maine, would deliver the seminal address of her remarkable 32-year congressional career that afternoon. Reading what she called a Declaration of Conscience, which she had written at her kitchen table a few days earlier, she became the first politician to denounce McCarthy’s fear-mongering on the Senate floor: “I don’t want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”
In time, Smith’s congressional career would span the terms of six Presidents as she became the first woman to win election to both houses of Congress. But she disliked such distinctions of gender. “Isn’t a woman a human being?” she once asked. “Why can’t she just be a person?” She had a flinty personality, as thorny sometimes as the signature red roses she pinned to her dress each day. Once, when she believed Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had deceived her about the closing of a shipyard in Maine, she dressed him down in a scathing missive: “You have not only been less than forthright in your statements—you have been arrogant and derogatory in your attitude toward me.” But she also had a tender side; the day after President Kennedy’s assassination, she entered the Senate chamber early in the morning and laid a single rose across his old desk.
Smith’s career in Washington started late. She was born Dec. 14,1897, in the little Maine mill town of Skowhegan, where her mother, Carrie Murray Chase, worked as a waitress and her father, George Emery Chase, was a town barber. The oldest of six children, she started work at age 12, stocking shelves at the five-and-ten. After graduating from high school in 1916, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse for just 28 weeks, then took a job as a telephone operator for 10 cents an hour. In 1919 she joined the local Independent Reporter as circulation manager and 11 years later married its co-owner, Clyde H. Smith, then 21 years her senior.
It was her husband, with his involvement in local Republican politics, who introduced Smith to her life’s work. In 1936 he was elected to the U.S. House from Maine’s second congressional district. She worked as his full-time secretary in Washington, and when he died of a heart attack in 1940, she was elected to fill his unexpired term. From then on she seemed unstoppable, crossing party lines to endorse government-financed medical care and federal aid to education. “She proved integrity could always be good politics,” says Maine Gov. Angus King. “She had an absolute rock-bottom sense of self.”
Given her career, Smith had little time for a life outside politics. “I have only myself and my job as a U.S. senator,” she once said. That wasn’t entirely true. For years she lived downstairs from her chief assistant, Bill Lewis, who remained a close friend until his death in 1982. “Of course we had a relationship,” she told The Washington Post in 1986. “Of course we loved each other. But not like that. Looking back, I wish I would have made more time for love.”
Smith’s political career ended in 1972 when Democrat William D. Hathaway defeated her in her bid for a fifth Senate term. At the time, Smith, then 74, traveled the Capitol corridors on a small yellow cart, carrying a cane. “I think a lot of people thought she was taking it [her place in Congress] for granted,” says Hathaway, now 71. But Smith—who had never accepted contributions from individuals or interest groups—said she simply lost pace with modern campaign strategies: “The trouble was I didn’t have money for television.”
Friends say that although her eyesight had deteriorated in recent years, she remained spry and alert, still able to poke fun at herself. A year ago, former Maine Gov. John McKernan Jr. recalls, Smith told him she had been speaking to fourth graders at the Margaret Chase Smith Elementary School in Skowhegan when one little boy put up his hand and asked her, “How does it feel to be named after a school?” The incident just tickled her, says McKernan. “She still had that quick wit and appreciated humor.”
MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington and S. AVERY BROWN in Boston