By: Anthony Emerson, USM ’19
On Feb. 9, 1950, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith — at the time the only woman in the United States Senate and one of just a handful in any political office nationwide — stood in front of the United States Senate and delivered a speech decrying the system of witch hunts perpetuated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Army- McCarthy Hearings. She stood up to Joseph McCarthy, and the popular sentiment in their Republican Party, against blacklisting and in favor of the inalienable right to protest and to hold unpopular beliefs. It would be remembered as the Declaration of Conscience speech.
On July 25, 1974, Maine Congressman William Cohen — at the time, only a freshman in Congress — delivered the opening statement of the House Judiciary Committee just prior to the Committee considering articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Cohen and Nixon were both Republicans. He was one of the first Republicans to break with Nixon, and he nearly paid the price for it, telling the Portland Press Herald in 2017 that he had thousands of letters arriving at his office from Republicans declaring they would never support him again. Cohen stated “I said, ‘I came here to do the right thing, and so be it.’ ”
Faced with a similar opportunity as Cohen and Chase Smith to break away from her party, Senator Susan Collins instead chose to follow party lines. Collins has always said she looked up to Chase Smith, who was the first woman ever elected to high office in Maine. Collins also served as an aide to then Congressman Cohen and ran for his Senate seat when he retired in 1996.
The vote on Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual harassment or assault by three women and displaying an arrogant and petty personality during testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was her Watergate moment. It was a chance for her Declaration of Conscience.
Instead it was a Declaration of Cowardice.
In an agonizing 45-minute speech on the Senate floor, Collins announced that she would be voting to promote Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Following months of lobbying by activists, reports that her staff were not taking down calls to her office and a crowdfunding effort that raised at the time of the vote over $2.5 million for a potential Democratic challenger to her seat, Mainers finally had their answer.
Collins’s handling of the Kavanaugh nomination has been sickening. When the FBI investigation was hamstrung by the White House, Collins remained silent. When the report on that investigation was released, Collins called it “very thorough,” even though the FBI did not interview Kavanaugh, his accusers or other witnesses. And, most despicably, she repeatedly refused to meet with Maine women who are survivors of sexual assault.
In her speech on the Senate floor, Collins denounced “special interests” organizing against Kavanaugh’s nomination. She then proceeded to pick apart the story of attempted rape delivered to the Senate by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, apparently believing that “something” had happened to Dr. Ford, but that she did not believe that her attacker had been Kavanaugh. She ignored Kavanaugh’s rambling and unhinged testimony when confronted with the allegations, neglecting to mention the thinly veiled threat Kavanaugh issued that “what goes around comes around” and his blaming all the allegations as falsehoods peddled from “the Clintons” as “revenge.” He insulted one of Collins’s fellow Senators, acting like a petulant child when Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar asked Kavanaugh if he’d ever gotten so drunk that he blacked out. “I don’t know, have you?” he shot back to Klobuchar. Klobuchar’s father was a violent alcoholic.
Kavanaugh’s testimony wasn’t even referenced in Collins’s speech.
Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono called Collins’s speech “insulting” to survivors, noting that one of the things Dr. Ford remembered with 100 percent certainty was that it was Kavanaugh who attacked her and that Dr. Ford told her husband and therapist that Kavanaugh attacked her six years prior to his nomination to the Supreme Court. As someone who listened to the speech in the presence of dozens of survivors, I would certainly agree with Hirono’s characterization. During an interview with 60 Minutes, she doubled-down, stating that she believes “someone” attacked Dr. Ford, but that Dr. Ford was “mistaken” in saying that it was Kavanaugh.
Her handling of the aftermath of Kavanaugh’s confirmation has been shameful. When faced with a potential electoral challenge from former Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Collins said that Rice “pleaded with [her]” to introduce her to the Senate prior to her confirmation. Later, she scrubbed a press release praising Rice from her website.
Senator Collins had a chance to live up to the legacies of her mentor and her idol. Instead, Mainers received feet-dragging, avoidance, and, justifications. None of this is becoming conduct for a Senator. And Mainers deserve a better one come 2020.