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Margaret Chase Smith : The Nation’s First Women Senator Reflects Back Over a Capitol Life

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<i> Stanley Meisler is a reporter in The Times Washington bureau. He interviewed Margaret Chase Smith at her home</i>

Margaret Chase Smith, who graced Washington for more than three decades as congresswoman and senator, now looks on it from afar, savoring her memories at the library that surrounds her home over the Kennebec River in central Maine.

Yet, though she will be 94 on Saturday, Smith is hardly housebound. While she has not been to Washington since she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush at the White House in 1989, she maintains a full schedule, traveling to conferences and universities for speeches and honors.

The first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, she came to Washington in 1936, as wife and secretary to Rep. Clyde H. Smith of Maine. When he died suddenly, in 1940, she won a special election to take his place. After three regular elections to the House, she won the race for the Senate in 1948, serving four terms until defeated in 1972.

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A moderate Republican ready to defy her party on what she regarded as issues of conscience, Smith, wearing her trademark rose, astounded the country by standing up to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and decrying his smearing of loyal Americans as communists. Barely in the Senate for more than a year, she called for an end to its debasing as a pit “of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.” She is sure to be remembered for that act of courage more than any other of her works in Washington.

Always refusing to accept campaign contributions, Smith was long regarded as a symbol of high ethical standards and hard work. She did not miss a single Senate roll-call vote between 1955 and 1968, until hampered by a hip operation.

Since her departure from Washington, the Margaret Chase Smith Library has been built as an annex to her home. A visitor can walk down a long corridor lined with campaign posters and political cartoons of Smith, and end up at a loose velvet rope that hangs across the parlor of her home. The library, containing the archives of her 32 years in Congress, also displays wonderful campaign and congressional mementos, including a letter from Supreme Court Justice Harold H. Burton congratulating her for taking on McCarthy.

Despite her age, Smith still speaks with great vigor and clarity, and it is not easy to tell that her vision is now impaired. She wore a turquoise suit to receive a correspondent from The Times. “I thought I might try to wear summer clothes for Los Angeles,” she said.

Question: How has Congress changed since you left?

Answer: There have been changes all the way along. Not only in Congress, but in government generally, and among the people. We’re always hearing a great deal about ethics. I have always gone on the assumption that you cannot legislate ethics--either people are ethical or they are not. You can’t control it by law. I don’t know what the answer is at the moment, because since I left the Senate, in 1973--and that’s a long time ago--a great deal has happened. I have not been back. I think when you’re out, you’re out.

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Q: I know you did not accept campaign contributions.

A: That’s right. I’m too independent.

Q: Is that the core of the problem?

A: It has a good deal to do with it. It’s understandable. If you have campaign contributions from people, you feel you must please them the best you can. If one gives you a lot of money and the other gives you a smaller amount, and the issue is not of particular interest to you, you would naturally go with the bigger contribution.

Q: How were you able to campaign and be reelected without contributions?

A: It must be remembered that this was a long time ago, and much has happened since my days. I did because people supported me, because they believed in me. I didn’t have paid campaign managers. I did not have paid people. People felt, as the Constitution says, that people are the government. . . . Of course, I didn’t have to buy much radio or television, because I was, for a long time, the only woman. I, for one reason or another, was news--whatever I was doing. It wasn’t necessary for me to buy time--or I didn’t think it was.

Q: Are you disappointed that there are still so few women in Congress?

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A: I don’t look upon that like most people do. My feeling is that women have come a long, long way in a relatively short time. I think that they have made some great gains. I think it’s time for them now to be looked upon as people and not women and men. I realize there’s a difference between men and women--no one would realize it more than I do. But it is not reasonable for women to stand out and want equal rights and, at the same time, all the special privileges that come with it. . . .

I never was a woman candidate. I never was a woman senator or woman representative--I was one of them. Perhaps I was different. Perhaps I came in at a different time. I’m not sure about that. But I think too much emphasis is placed on “I’m only a woman.”

Q: Let me ask you about your declaration about McCarthy. Is that your most memorable moment in Congress?

A: I think if I go down in history for anything, that will be the reason for it. But I think I had many other issues that I was very active in. Medical research is one that I’ve put a great deal of time in. I majored in defense matters, because I was on the defense committees. . . . But if I’m remembered at all, it will be for my declaration of conscience.

Q: Was that difficult for you at the time?

A: Oh my! I’ll say it was difficult! Very, very difficult. But someone had to do it. . . . I had been in the Senate only a year, and I had been on this investigating committee with McCarthy. The more I thought of it, the more I thought, someone has to do this. The Democrats, of course, under Lyndon Johnson’s leadership, had said it’s a Republican fight, let them fight it out. That didn’t help. So I came to the conclusion that I should do it. . . .

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When (my assistant and I) walked over . . . we met Sen. McCarthy, and he said, “Margaret, what’s the trouble? What are you up to? You look awfully glum this morning.” I said, “I’m making a speech and you’re not going to like it.” But he came in and listened, though.

Actually, I’d always believed that had McCarthy been honest, he could have made a great name for himself, because there were some bad spots in government. If he had stuck to his facts--but the story was, of course, that he never did. He never said outside of the Senate chamber what he said on the Senate floor, because he knew he could be sued if he went outside and said the things he did. It was a sad, sad story.

But I got on my feet. . . . I quivered for a couple of minutes, but it was over. . . . I sat down following the speech, to give McCarthy a chance to attack me or to ask me questions. He did neither.

Q: Didn’t a McCarthyite try to oppose you in the primary?

A: Right. . . . In 1954, he (McCarthy) brought a young man in to run against me, and came up and went on the platform with him, introduced him as a much better candidate. . . . It was a very, very rough campaign. . . . They made such accusations. Again, I didn’t spend the money to get people out. But the people came out, and I won--I think it was about five-to-one that primary. That stopped him. That was really the beginning of the end of McCarthy.

Q: If I counted right, you served in the Congress under six Presidents.

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A: That’s right, beginning with (Franklin D.) Roosevelt. . . . As a Republican even, I had a great respect for Roosevelt because of getting us out of that deep, deep Depression. I think it was sad that somebody didn’t pick it up and get us back on the right road after that.

I had a great respect for President Truman. He . . . was a historian. I found that he studied his issues, and he came in and stayed with his findings. I could have respect for that.

I think Mr. Eisenhower could have gone down as a great President if he had picked up the Hoover Commission recommendations for reorganization of government. . . . I talked with him two or three times about it, and he’d always say, let’s go slowly now. We’ve been fighting long enough, let’s be quiet for a while. I think that was one of the things that made me unhappy about Mr. Eisenhower.

Q: Lyndon Johnson, you must have known very well then.

A: Yes, Lyndon and I were very good friends. . . . We went into the House at the same time, the same year. We sat on the same committees--appropriations, armed services, space. . . .

He used to wander over on my side, and stand over my desk, and roll his eyes around to look and see who was looking at him from the gallery, and talking. One day he put his hand in his pocket and drew out a lot of papers. I said, “What are those?” He said, “Well, I’ll tell you about those. Those are IOUs.” I said, “IOUs? What do you use with IOUs?” . . . He said, “When I do anything special for anyone, then I feel if I want a favor, I can go to them and ask for it.” I thought to myself: Well, you don’t have one on me, and you’re not going to get one.

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He went on, and I had a bill in to equalize the pay of Navy people between New Hampshire and Boston. The Boston Navy was getting a lot more money than the New Hampshire people were, and I didn’t think it was fair. So I introduced a bill, got it through the House, got it through the Senate and Eisenhower vetoed it, which I didn’t like very well. Some of the people in the service did not want that situation changed.

In appropriations one day, about half past 12, he (Johnson) came around to my side of the table, and he said, why don’t you come up to the Senate floor at 1 o’clock. He said, “Don’t say anything to anybody, don’t tell anybody I told you. Take your seat like you would ordinarily. I’d like you to see something.”

So I did. I wandered into the Senate chamber, (and) . . . I heard this voice of Johnson saying, “I call up the veto” message and so forth. He had every Democrat in the Senate there, and not a Republican on the floor, and he overrode the veto message of Eisenhower. He had an IOU.

Q: You were also in the Senate with Nixon.

A: We were never very close in anything that happened around there. I did not trust him, because I knew some things he was doing in Maine against me, which did not show straight honesty. . . . He probably . . . knew more about foreign affairs than any other one person we had in the country. He could have been such a help to this country. But I found that he could not be trusted. I don’t mind if anybody doesn’t agree with me, but I don’t like it if they aren’t honest with me.

Q: When you came, in 1936, the staffs were very small, weren’t they?

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A: Yes, very small. My husband, when he was there, he had two and a half people--the half was a part-time person. I was one of the two. That’s all he had. When I was there, I think that’s all I had.

Of course, we must remember that I was from Maine. . . . I had a very heavy mail for a state like this, and I answered my mail. But my staff was always a working staff. They didn’t have many breaks to get out and do things. . . .

I can’t compare myself with Texas or New York, or some of those larger states. But when the story went around that some of the senators--and I think there was one from Minnesota, one from Massachusetts--some of those senators had 150 staff members. There wasn’t room for them around the Capitol, so they had to go downtown and rent office space for them. I thought it was rather ridiculous, and I still think it’s rather ridiculous.

Q: There’s a lot of talk recently, with the Clarence Thomas hearings, that the Senate’s collegial atmosphere is gone. Have you heard anything about that?

A: No, but you get the feeling the whole picture has changed. Everything has changed. The committees have changed, committee action has changed, Senate action has changed. . . . It’s just a different world. I think it’s not for the better.

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