In the past week, we have heard Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) call for an investigation of whether members of Congress are “pro-America or anti-America.” As a first-term representative she can perhaps be dismissed as fringe, but we’re hearing similar language from Sarah Palin on the campaign trail, and some are beginning to see this as a pattern on the part of the McCain campaign.
Fifty-eight years ago, Senator Margaret Chase Smith — the first woman to be elected to the US Senate — had the courage to speak out against fellow Republican Joe McCarthy and his unconscionable debasement of the US Senate “to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.”
“The nation sorely needs a Republican victory,” she said in her Declaration of Conscious, “but I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.” As a first-term Senator, speaking out against not only a member of her own party but one of the Senate’s most powerful and vindictive members was hardly a career-advancing move, costing her a key subcommittee appointment and almost costing her her reelection.
It would be another four years before the Senate would finally censure Senator McCarthy and bring his witch hunt to an end, four years in which countless careers were destroyed, our leaders were distracted from addressing more pressing issues, and paranoia and division gripped our nation. It would be many more years before the damage done during that period would be repaired. History now remembers Senator Smith as being the first to speak out against this nightmare, before it became safe or popular to do so.
In the coming months and years we will be asking our elected representatives to lead us out of a global financial crisis, climate change, two wars and a severely tarnished reputation abroad. To address these problems we will need to draw on the strengths and ideas from all the diverse backgrounds, faiths and ideologies our great nation has to offer. We can not afford to waste time with hatred and division in our government or in the population at large.