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Opinion Richard Connor: On speeches, the Senate and declarations of conscience

Richard Connor: On speeches, the Senate and declarations of conscience

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Texas has been my home for over 30 years but I was raised in Maine. It’s a small state with barely more than 1 million people and so it’s easy to know folks there.

I’ve spent enough time with the state’s senior U.S. senator, Susan Collins, to know that she is authentic and genuine and down to earth. She lives a few blocks from my boyhood home. I consider her a friend.

Her Oct. 6 yes vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t change that, although I wish she had voted no. As I wrote here last week, I don’t believe Kavanaugh is suited to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Collins comes from a part of Maine, northern Maine, where the residents hunt and fish not so much for sport but to put food on the table. It’s logging and potato country, a place where not so long ago jobs were readily available but no longer are because of the shutdown of huge paper mills.

It’s tough country, much like West Texas, and it breeds tough people who are hardworking, salt of the earth, and plain-spoken.

Sen. Collins shares those qualities. She also owns a solid streak of Maine independence and labors in the Senate as a member of that nearly extinct species, the moderate Republican. As such, she has sometimes infuriated Republican colleagues and doctrinaire conservatives by crossing the aisle to side with Democrats on key votes. Some are still angry with her for helping to advance President Barack Obama’s controversial health care bill – “Obamacare,” as its detractors labeled it – at a time when Republicans in Congress were trying to kill it.

Collins was one of 50 senators – 49 Republicans and one Democrat – who voted for Kavanaugh and it puzzles me and strikes me as unfair that anti-Kavanaugh activists have singled her out as the deciding vote. Her mistake seems only to have been that she once said she was undecided and instead of automatically adhering to the party line wanted to think it over, study things. That gave Kavanaugh’s opponents hope she would vote against him and, in the end, they felt betrayed when she backed the nominee instead of joining fellow moderate GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in opposition.

She also antagonized Kavanaugh’s opponents with her long, pre-vote speech explaining her decision and rejecting arguments raised by those opposing his confirmation.

During the speech, I received a text from someone who was apparently impressed by her oratory.

“A Margaret Chase Smith moment for Susan Collins,” proclaimed the texter.

If you’re not a student of Maine political history or familiar with the deplorable “McCarthy era” of American politics, the reference to Margaret Chase Smith may not ring a bell.

Before Susan Collins and before her highly respected and now-retired colleague Olympia Snowe, there was Maine’s most renowned and most accomplished female politician, Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.

An iconic figure in Maine, Smith won national recognition in 1950 with her “Declaration of Conscience” speech on the Senate floor denouncing fellow Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who was conducting a notorious and relentless witch-hunt for communists in the government, especially the State Department, and the private sector, especially the entertainment industry. His persecution of Hollywood actors, directors and screenwriters led to an industry “blacklist” that destroyed many lives and careers.

The speech, in which Smith famously warned against the “Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear,” was widely praised and fueled talk of Smith becoming a candidate for vice president or even president, an unheard of notion for a woman in the mid-20th century.

My texting friend’s declaration notwithstanding, Collins’ pro-Kavanaugh speech was no “Declaration of Conscience.” Although conservative pundits and fellow Republicans lauded the speech as a definitive, point-by-point defense of Kavanaugh’s qualifications to serve on the Supreme Court, it sounded more like a desperate rationalization of Collins’ decision to back a wildly controversial nominee.

“I did not do any kind of political calculation in making my decision,” Collins said in a TV interview after the speech. “I have to apply my best judgment. I cannot weigh the political consequences. In this case it was obvious there were going to be people very angry at me no matter what I did. I have to do what I think is right, and that’s what I did.”

Collins has a history of following her conscience and it’s only fair to take her at her word, although her vote looked suspiciously more like partisan capitulation than an act of political integrity.

She was absolutely correct, however, about people being very angry. Controversy has trailed her since the speech and the vote. Newspapers and other media in Maine are reporting massive dissatisfaction with her.

While she spoke on the Senate floor a crowdfunding effort to raise money for a possible opponent should she seek re-election in 2020 topped $3 million before the site crashed because of the traffic.

Maine is two states in a way, divided geographically, politically and culturally between southern and northern Maine. The southern part, anchored by the state’s largest city, Portland, with a population approaching 70,000, is Democratic and liberal. A friend of mine used to refer to it as the “People’s Republic of Portland.” Those folks had to be outraged by her vote for Kavanaugh.

The hunters, the fishermen, the loggers and millworkers will continue to support her, I bet, and will admire her for waiting and thinking and then deciding what to do.

A paper I ran in Maine once editorialized that Sen. Collins was not “a real Republican.” That may still ring true to hard-core partisans but she’s been voting with President Donald Trump more than 75 percent of the time.

I have personal disappointment in her vote but I still consider her a friend, admire her, and even though her declaration of conscience could not match Sen. Smith’s, I believe she is a person of high standards and sincere conscience.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net

More information:

Read about Magaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” on the U.S. Senate website.

Read the compete text of Margaret Chase Smith’s Declaration of Conscience speech at American Rhetoric.

Read the New York Times’ transcript of Susan Collins’ Senate speech explaining her vote on Brett Kavanaugh.

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