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Opinion The GOP hounding of Liz Cheney recalls the McCarthy-era smearing of another woman who took a stand

Margaret Chase Smith, left, and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). (Library of Congress / Getty Images)
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Our former president’s endless flow of hogwash about a stolen election recalls another long-running fiction in American politics, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy brandished his imaginary lists of Communists in government. The main difference is, a few former Communists actually served in the U.S. government, whereas the fraud perpetrated by Donald Trump remains a figment.

In McCarthy’s day, as in ours, a significant percentage of Republicans found such vigorous and reckless irresponsibility to be a breath of fresh air. They supported McCarthy just as today’s Republicans support Trump. They sought a man willing to lie for his country, or for his party, anyway. Only milquetoast leaders allow themselves to be hamstrung by the truth.

The lies themselves were similar, rooted in the idea that political disagreement can be explained only by perfidy and treason among the opposition. The party’s hardcore elements buy the lie as a sort of nihilistic Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is the best, and Democrats are simply hellbent on destroying the country.

McCarthy met his nemesis in the person of Margaret Chase Smith, a rock-ribbed Republican from Skowhegan, Maine. Elected in 1940 to fill the congressional seat vacated after the death of her husband, Smith began a career of more than 30 years as the first woman in U.S. history to win races for both the House and the Senate.

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Smith was on to McCarthy from the get-go. In February 1950, “Tail Gunner Joe” lodged his first claim to possess a secret list of traitors. Smith took the Communist threat seriously and asked McCarthy for his evidence. When months went by with no proof offered, she concluded that he was simply spreading slander — yet, as a lowly freshman after moving across the Capitol from the House, she was reluctant to oppose him.

So was the rest of her party, she later recalled. “This great psychological fear … spread to the Senate, where a considerable amount of mental paralysis and muteness set in for fear of offending McCarthy,” she said, according to the Senate’s own account of the history. Concluding that she must take a stand, Smith gathered a half-dozen of her male colleagues to back her up.

She encountered McCarthy as she boarded the Senate subway on June 1. “Margaret, you look very serious,” he said. “Are you going to make a speech?” “Yes, and you will not like it!” she replied. Smith called the speech her “Declaration of Conscience.”

It was an artful bit of oratory. Smith never mentioned McCarthy by name, yet there was no mistaking her subject. She denounced the Democrats as utter failures, yet insisted they be respected as fellow Americans. Political discourse, she warned, had been “debased to the level of … hate and character assassination.” She said, “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.” Warning of a “national suicide” through excessive partisanship, she said: “I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.”

The reaction among McCarthy’s enablers was swift and punishing. Smith was ousted from a key Senate committee. “McCarthy’s allies,” the Senate history says, “took every occasion to smear Senator Smith.”

This all might sound familiar to those watching the hounding of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). She has been expelled from her post in House leadership and censured by the Republican National Committee for having the guts to stand up to Trump. Last year, the lifelong Republican — daughter of the party’s two-time vice-presidential selection, Richard B. Cheney — refused to go along with a doomed bit of grandstanding designed to undermine confidence in the election. She made the perfectly reasonable observation that Trump’s deceitful rhetoric inflamed the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters. She voted to hold Trump accountable, and she is participating in a congressional investigation into the whole shameful episode.

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The sum of Cheney’s supposed offenses comes to this: She has spoken the truth, defended the truth and pursued the truth during one of her party’s periodic infatuations with a demagogic liar. Like Margaret Chase Smith before her, Cheney’s reward is a heaping dose of hatred from the party she loyally serves. The unknown author of Ecclesiastes had it right: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

But history, too, will most likely do again what it has done before. It will have the same low regard for Trump that it has for McCarthy; any virtues either man might have had will be obscured by their excesses and deceit. It will vindicate Cheney as it has vindicated Smith. When their stories are told to future generations, both will be celebrated for their convictions and admired for their conscience.