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Margaret Chase Smith dead at 97

Published May 30, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Margaret Chase Smith, the flinty, independent Maine Republican who made history as the first woman to win election to both houses of Congress and the first whose name was advanced for the presidency at a national convention, died Monday at her home in Skowhegan, Maine. She was 97.

A spokeswoman from the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan said she died from complications from a stroke that had put her in a coma eight days earlier.

A red rose was her trademark; a stalwart conscience, her beacon. She was known as the "conscience of the Senate."

In her four terms in the House, from 1941 to 1949, and four more in the Senate, from 1949 to 1973, Mrs. Smith won friends and earned her foes across a wide political spectrum.

She could number among her enemies such polar opposites as the communist-hunting Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev.

The formidable McCarthy referred sneeringly to Mrs. Smith as a "Snow White," and Khrushchev saw her as "the Devil in the disguise of a woman."

Smith _ a striking figure with immaculately groomed silver hair and a red rose on the left lapel of her dress _ was a tiny woman, just slightly over 5 feet tall and weighing 100 pounds. But she was noted for a fierce and sometimes imperious independence and a profound sense of duty _ as in her condemnation of McCarthy.

A widow when first elected, Mrs. Smith said her life in politics was her only life.

"I have no family, no time-consuming hobbies," she said late in her Senate career. "I have only myself and my job as United States senator."

She also had a sense of humor. In 1952, when asked by a reporter what she would do if she woke up one morning and found herself in the White House, she replied: "I'd go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I'd go home."

Though Mrs. Smith seemed to many people a champion of women's rights, she said she did not regard herself as a feminist.

"I was treated fairly in the Senate, not because of equal rights but because of seniority," she said in a 1975 interview.

In her dedication to her work, she answered 2,941 consecutive Senate roll calls, a series broken only when she underwent a hip operation in 1968. In time, she became the ranking Republican on the Armed Services and Aeronautical and Space Sciences committees, and served as well on the Appropriations Committee.

Never anything but a Republican, Mrs. Smith was hardly the dyed-in-the-wool variety. Party regulars could never take her vote for granted. She voted as she saw fit.

In the 1950s, Mrs. Smith alienated McCarthy by joining with six other Republican senators in publicly speaking against McCarthy's sensationalist, inquisitorial methods in trying to suppress communism.

"I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horseman of calumny _ fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear," Mrs. Smith said. McCarthy responded by referring to her and the six other senators as "Snow White and the Six Dwarfs."

Khrushchev was critical when Mrs. Smith, a consistent advocate of a strong military, attacked President John Kennedy because she thought he lacked the will to use nuclear weapons and concluded that such restraint weakened America's struggle against the Soviet Union.

When Khrushchev heard of Mrs. Smith's stance, he said he thought it had beaten "all records of savagery."

But Mrs. Smith replied: "Mr. Khrushchev isn't really mad at me. I am not that important. He is angry because American officials have grown more firm since my speech."

Republicans did not know what to do with Mrs. Smith except admire her, occasionally fear her and generally refrain from running against her. In 1954, when a McCarthy protege made a run at her Senate seat, she trounced him by a ratio of 5-to-1.

Shortly before his assassination, President Kennedy called Mrs. Smith a "formidable political figure" against whom he would not like to campaign. The morning after his death, she went into the Senate chamber before it convened and laid a red rose on Kennedy's old desk.

Margaret Chase Smith, the eldest of six children, was born in Skowhegan on Dec. 14, 1897, to working-class parents.

Unable to afford college after completing high school, she worked variously as an $8.50-a-week teacher in a one-room rural school, as circulation manager of Skowhegan's weekly newspaper and as office manager of a woolen mill.

In 1930, she was married to Clyde Smith, a prosperous businessman and successful Republican politician. Clyde Smith was elected to the House of Representatives in 1936 and his wife joined his office as his secretary.

Clyde Smith died of a heart attack in 1940 and his wife won a special election to succeed him. She was re-elected in her own right the next November.

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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