Litmus Test from the Land of Snowe

When I think about today’s ideologically deadlocked U.S. Senate, I’m proud that a senator from my Great State of Maine once said, “I speak as a Republican, I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States senator.  I speak as an American.  The United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body in the world.  But recently that deliberative character has too often been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination.”

I’m also proud to say that either one of Maine’s senators – Olympia Snowe or Susan Colins – could have delivered the above quote.  The thing is, neither of them did.

The speaker was Margaret Chase Smith.  The year was 1950.  The topic was the growing menace of McCarthyism.  The speech has come to be known as The Declaration of Conscience.  Sixty years later, it still seems like a good (and timely!) idea.

To me, it’s both remarkable and fascinating that our state of less than a million people of relatively modest means (e.g., per capita income rank in bottom half) has sent so many quality leaders to Washington.  In addition to the ladies above, senators like Cohen, Mitchell and Muskie (all in my lifetime) have played key leadership roles on both the national and international stage.  And they’ve done so from both sides of the aisle.

I don’t know if these folks are smarter than everyone else, but evidence of the fact that they are real people of substance is commonplace in the Pine Tree State.  For me, three concrete examples come immediately to mind:

–          Back in my school days at Hyde, Muskie was a trustee.  Not only did he attend meetings (i.e., He wasn’t just listed on the admissions view book to make the school look good), he insisted on talking with students face-to-face.  Freshman year, I remember going into a trustees meeting with a group of fellow students (Hyde was all boys then.) to answer his pointed question: What’s it really like to go to school here? We all trusted that he really wanted to know.

–          When my daughter served as a tour guide for Susan Collins’ visit to her local elementary school, Senator Collins sent a personal note a few days later thanking Scout and telling us we should be proud of our daughter.  A politician’s personal touch?  Maybe, but it was a thoughtful gesture any way you look at it.

–          When longtime Congressman Tom Allen spoke to Hyde’s students in the late 90s, he stayed behind for a good hour answering questions.  When I later quipped that most of the kids were out-of-staters whose parents are legally prohibited from voting for him, he said that he assumed that to be true.  It was clear that he was having a good time as he waved his aides off who were anxiously trying to get him to exit so they could shuttle him to his next engagement.

Perhaps the strongest image for me is that of Olympia Snowe very early one election morning, a decade or so ago at the North Gate of the Bath Iron Works.  I was there with my daughter panhandling for money for basketball uniforms for the Bath Lady Bucs 5th grade travel team.  (And none too pleased about it!)  While we were hitting up the workers for spare change as they entered “The Yard” to punch in for work, Olympia was hitting them up for votes.

What struck me was the simple fact that it was just her.  No handlers.  (While I’m sure they were nearby, I couldn’t see them.)  To add to the drama, the workers’ union was publicly supporting Olympia’s opponent (a Democrat).  Although I didn’t get the impression that these men and women were necessarily planning to vote for her, you could feel the mutual respect communicated between candidate and the people.  Regardless of what the crowd might have thought of her politics, all could see that she was genuine, real, and tough.  That morning my role was to serve as a father to a little girl.  As we headed for home – with enough money for new uniforms! – I was truly grateful for the assist Olympia gave to my parenting.  Talk about a role model.

While I’m too young to remember McCarthyism first-hand, there does seem to be a whiff of something distasteful – let’s just call it less than inspirational – wafting through the Capitol chambers these days.  Like Olympia, I’ve got some serious doubts about the Tea Party mindset.  But before you dismiss me as a political ideologue, understand that my partisan allegiance is so unreliable – I’ve been a member of all three parties, each for long periods of time. – that I no longer ever get approached by any of them.  (If you must know, my current affiliation is probably Lapsed Republican.)

Writing in USA Today (2/15/11), DeWayne Wickham quotes Snowe on her perception of the Tea Party’s apparent ideological litmus test: “What works in South Carolina and Delaware may not work in Maine.  We all have different views.  We’re independent.  I can’t go back to my state and say, ‘Excuse me, I have to be 100% ideologically pure because someone has dictated that from another state.’ It just wouldn’t wash.”

Maine humorist Tim Sample recently observed, “Maine folks are less interested in your religion, politics, and sexual orientation than whether you have jumper cables and are willing to stop.”  Now there’s a litmus test.  My money says Olympia would pass on both counts.

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld