There was a time in history when Republican senators were willing to censure a colleagueMichael H. Ebneron November 29, 2021 at 11:00 pm

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., (left) talks with his lawyer, Edward Williams, in 1954 before the start of a special meeting of a Senate committee investigating McCarthy. | AP

It was 67 years ago this week when GOP senators censured Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Under the very best of circumstances, the past enables us to bring some light, however dim, on present events.

On Dec 2, 1954 — 67 years ago this week — Republican members of the U.S. Senate voted to censure their colleague Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. Taking this step, they aligned with 67 of the Senate’s Democrats. Their issue had to do with the repeated breaches of conduct by Sen. Joseph McCarthy — himself a Republican — recklessly traveling along a fraught path. Since 1950, he had proffered allegations of Communist infiltration within the civilian ranks of government, its uniformed forces, as well as academics, artists, authors, journalists, musicians, scientists, and so on.

Two Republican senators — Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Ralph E. Flanders of Vermont — opted to take on paramount roles. Whether or not their efforts were coordinated, each of them looked askance at McCarthy’s specious, and often destructive, claims in defiance of the prevailing decorum generally associated with Senate deliberations and procedures. Smith eventually found herself unceremoniously removed, by the Republican majority, from a key committee assignment. Party leaders replaced her with Sen. Richard M. Nixon.

None of this proved new. Four years prior to bringing the censure motion to the Senate’s floor, Smith delivered a stirring speech — re-printed in textbooks to this day and discussed by students learning about civics — “Declaration of Conscience.”

“I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition,” Smith said “… The United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body. … But recently that deliberative character has been debased to a forum of hate and character assassination.” In taking this momentous step, Smith demonstrated a measured resolve, judiciously never reciting by name the object of her remarks.

Flanders took to the floor on March 9, 1954, pointedly expressing his convictions pertaining to McCarthy: “It does not seem that his Republican label can be stuck very tightly, when, by intention or through ignorance he is doing his best to shatter the party whose label he wears.”

Subsequently, Flanders, who habitually avoided the limelight, would ruminate as to why he took this dramatic step: “The conviction grew that something must be done about this, even if I had to do it myself.” Standing in the well of the chamber, Flanders proceeded to introduce the censure motion on July 9, 1954: ” … obstructing the constitutional processes of the Senate … this conduct … is hereby condemned.”

The past and the present

What happened next draws our attention from our vantage point 67 years later. Twenty-two Republican senators, both moderates and conservatives, courageously stepped forward to vote “yea” on the motion to censure McCarthy. By taking a decisive step, weighted with political peril, they all decisively opted to join with the Democratic majority.

Flanders, in a retrospective observation nine years after the censure vote, struck a philosophical note reflecting on his unaccustomed public stance: “Even in the established democracies … the voters are easily seduced into leaving politics to skillful politicians who are themselves without a sense of general, social responsibility.”

Smith, accustomed to speaking forthrightly, proceeded to compose a memorable postscript. On the matter of voting affirmatively on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she forcefully challenged the resistance by conservative Democrats as well as their Republican counterparts. In doing so, Smith joined 26 other Republican senators who voted for the landmark legislation championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Smith, again in 1964, dramatically entered the campaign in pursuit of the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona ultimately wrested the nomination in an ideologically fraught convention. But there is still more: In another high-wire act of defiance, captured via a nationally televised coverage of the party’s national convention in San Francisco, again Smith purposefully stepped beyond the prevailing principle of political orthodoxy. She refused to release “Smith delegates” to Goldwater even though he had accumulated more than enough votes to secure his party’s nomination.

Smith, by virtue of taking this momentous step, symbolically thwarted Goldwater’s envisioning himself as the unanimous choice of the Republican Party.

John Lewis Gaddis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, cautions us to distinguish between the knowable past vis-a-vis the uncertainties of reading the present. But under the very best of circumstances, the past enables us to bring some light, however dimly it might shine upon fraught events unfolding before us in the present tense.

Michael H. Ebner is the James D. Vail III professor of American history, emeritus, at Lake Forest College.

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