McCain’s Bachmann rebuke recalls Senate challenge to Joseph McCarthy

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith appearing with Eleanor Roosevelt on 'Face the Nation' in 1956.

The Star Tribune’s words were sharp and direct.

“[Rep. Michele] Bachmann appears to be back in prepresidential form, tossing rhetorical bombs with little concern for the damage she inflicts,” its July 21 editorial declared. “There may be no convincing her to change her ways. But the Sixth District voters have it in their power to disconnect their region’s reputation from hers.”

The editorial was referring to a charge by Bachmann and four of her House colleagues that Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, could pose a security threat to the United States because of Abedin’s alleged ties to a Middle Eastern political group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Later Bachmann claimed that Minnesota’s Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison also had ties to the group.

The newspaper noted that Bachmann and her colleagues had recently been rebuked by Sen. John McCain, the Republicans’ 2008 presidential nominee. In a July 18 statement on the Senate floor, McCain strongly defended Abedin, noting that she was a “loyal servant of our country and our government” and “represents what is best about America.” 

McCain did not mention Bachmann by name, but referred to her accusations, saying, “When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are … it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”

Smith decried ‘selfish, political exploitation of fear …’

Some have equated McCain’s rebuke with a Senate floor speech delivered more than 60 years earlier by Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith. In her statement, delivered on June 1, 1950, Smith decried what she viewed as “selfish, political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance.”

Sen. Joe McCarthyLibrary of CongressSen. Joseph McCarthy

While she never mentioned him by name, the Maine Republican left no doubt that she was referring to the red-baiting tactics of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Six Senate Republicans, including Minnesota’s Ed Thye, signed on to Smith’s statement, known as a “Declaration of Conscience.” Smith and her supporters directed their ire at fellow Republicans who were backing McCarthy, but the seven senators also aimed some barbs at Democrats for failing to do more to halt the spread of international communism.

Smith’s Declaration of Conscience drew strong words of support from the Star Tribune’s predecessor publication, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune. The Tribune applauded Smith and her colleagues for standing up to McCarthy and his efforts to smear certain State Department officials by impugning their loyalty to the United States. The paper described his tactics as “wideswinging” and “irresponsible.” It also said:

“The nation stands in debt to Mrs. Smith and her six colleagues in the senate for their ‘declaration of conscience.’  The murky atmosphere of uneasiness and confusion which has arisen from the McCarthy charges is just a little clearer today because of it. And the bonds of national unity, so urgently needed in these dangerous times, are just a little stronger.”

Paper took on McCarthy

The Tribune took on McCarthy at a time when other daily papers were more circumspect about the Wisconsin senator and his anti-Communist crusade. In a June 4, 1950 editorial, the New York Times lauded Smith and her Senate colleagues for denouncing “petty partisanship,” but the Times editorial made no reference to McCarthy and his red-baiting tactics.

Across the river in St. Paul, the Pioneer Press did not comment on Smith’s Statement of Conscience on its editorial page. However, in an apparent effort to appear even-handed, the paper declared that “7 GOP Senators Assail Both Parties’ Tactics on Commie Charges” in its front-page coverage of the Smith statement on June 2.

While Minnesota’s Ed Thye, a Republican, had lined up in support of Smith on the Senate floor, he soon backtracked in an interview with the Tribune’s Washington correspondent, Nat Finney. Thye now maintained that Smith’s declaration was not an attack on McCarthy, but only a call for moderation. “I don’t believe [McCarthy] has done his country a disservice,”  Thye told Finney, “In fact, I believe he had done a service by pin-pointing a situation that has led many Americans to lose confidence in the loyalty of some government employees.”

Four years later, in 1954, Thye, despite his earlier words of support, voted with a majority of Senate members and his Minnesota colleague, Hubert Humphrey, to condemn McCarthy for his abuse of Senate processes.

McCarthy CartoonHennepin County LibraryScott Long’s cartoon in the Tribune

‘Irresponsible techniques of a demagogue’

The Tribune applauded the Dec. 2 action, declaring, in forceful terms, that the Senate “has rejected the irresponsible techniques of a demagogue who has often insulted and maligned his fellow senators and who has shown an appalling contempt for the Senate’s authority and orderly procedures.”

Earlier in the year, McCarthy had been the frequent target of the Tribune’s editorial cartoonist Scott Long. One of Long’s cartoons showed the Wisconsin senator splitting the Republican Party, depicted as a rail about to succumb to “Honest McAbe’s” axe.

Fast forwarding to 2012: While Michele Bachmann’s tactics may not succeed in splitting the Republican Party, those tactics could affect her race for re-election in a newly reconfigured Sixth District.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Cheryl Kranz on 07/26/2012 - 11:27 am.

    MIchelle Bachmann

    It’s encouraging to finally hear comparisons being made between Bachmann and McCarthy as her antics have for years mimicked that scourge of the 50s. Perhaps those of us who have lived through it once, recognize it earliest but appreciate John McCain pointing out to the nation that this is wrong, and so damaging to all Americans and our country.

    Maybe it will become a teaching moment in the Republican Party….be careful who you pick as your role model – once toppled, one never regains one’s statue as a hero – except to the kooks! Only MIchelle would think it wise to mimic Joe McCarthy!

    If only Romney would sit up at listen and learn from this AND the Bush experience…Don’;t follow the lead of those that have lost the respect of the nation! The neo-cons are not carving a pathway to success for him…he would be better off to come up with his OWN plans.

Leave a Reply