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Jamie Stiehm Headshot

Hillary Clinton, Call Up Margaret Chase Smith

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If Sen. Hillary Clinton calls up her foremothers in delivering her presidential campaign's last hurrah in New York tonight, she'll find inspiration in a stunning speech made by a Northeastern woman senator -- the only woman in the U.S. Senate on June 1, 1950.

That was when the cold winds of McCarthyism began to blow, silencing critics of the government and witchhunting some that worked within the government as suspected subversives or Communists. The "Lady of Maine" rose up and famously said she did not wish to witness partisan political victory ride on "the Four Horsemen of Calumny - Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear."

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, in a speech forever known as her "Declaration of Conscience" on the Senate floor, fiercely attacked her fellow Republican, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, though she never uttered his name. Like mythical Cassandra, whose fate was to speak truths that went unheeded, Smith warned that freedom of speech was eroding and that America was losing its place as leader of the world because of the vicious paranoia that McCarthy had unleashed with his accusations.

Clinton would do well to use her hard-fought hour in the historical sun in a way that goes beyond showing good sportsmanship. We will all think better of her if she's a genuinely gracious loser to Sen. Barack Obama, without publicly pressing her case to be the party's vice-presidential nominee.

However, if she hears the voice of timeless Aegean truths in her ear, she will seize a magnificent opportunity to give a sweeping indictment of how the nation has suffered under the thumb of the Bush Administration since 2001. The Sept. 11th attacks were a tragic harbinger of the Iraq War, but also a pretext for the government to start spying on citizens -- again, in an eerie echo of the 1950s. The detention and abuse of suspected terrorists awaiting trial for years on end is another in the litany of un-American activities committed on their watch.

In a line that resonates just as clearly 58 Junes later, Smith declared, "The American people are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and guilty people whitewashed." Karl Rove and Valerie Plame, does that sound about right? What happened, Scott McClellan? Bush's self-confessed "propaganda" meister is Cassandra's perfect opposite, spinning the official lies for why the nation went to war.

Both redoubtable senators went by three names. Unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, Margaret Chase Smith never dropped one nor added the other for political reasons. But let's not be too hard on Clinton today, she showed the spirit and stamina of a thoroughbred out on trails as far as the Badlands. I liked seeing a lighter side of her dance in Puerto Rico. She also energized women voters of all ages and brought us to the brink of believing a woman could "summit" to the highest political peak. For supporters, her close second is heart-breaking to watch.

All that gives Clinton the authority to speak to a far greater "room" in the republic than Smith had on the Senate floor, especially if she elevates it above a campaign speech.

For a good year, Clinton has traveled the country's roads and heard thousands of tales of how people are hurting or trying to hold onto their houses. Tonight the nation will be listening closely. This is her chance to speak across party lines in a way that suggests that we share a common destiny. She can speak of how to heal some wounds the last seven years have seen.

Conjuring Smith's spirit, Clinton's clarion call should squarely confront the troublemaker-in-chief, George W. Bush. In fact, the story goes that Maine senator saw McCarthy as she walked to the floor on that June day and he asked, "Margaret, what's the matter? You look awfully glum this morning."

Smith answered: "I'm making a speech and you're not going to like it."

Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist in Washington.