Shortly after Hawaii and Alaska joined the Union and I was still a semi-young wiseguy, smugly sure that a celebrity candidate whose prospective campaign had sparked public interest would become a serious White House challenger, a grizzled political reporter brought me up short with this practical advice: "If a candidate gets measurably louder applause from the crowd when he's introduced to speak than he does when he's finished speaking, that candidate is overrated and will not be a winner." Retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan — who is getting much less praise on the way out than he did on the way in, when he was called a leader of "character and values," a person with "energy and vision" and the "intellectual leader" of the Republican Party — is the most recent evidence of the wisdom of that old political adage.
To his credit, Ryan, unlike too many withdrawing politicians, almost certainly means it when he speaks of going back to Wisconsin to spend time with his family, to whom he is devoted. But his legacy, beyond a tax law that lightens the burden on those most capable of paying, the truly advantaged, and, according to the respected Congressional Budget Office, sentences the nation and Ryan's Janesville neighbors — in a time not of wide-scale war or painful recession but of celebrated economic prosperity and low unemployment — to annual federal budget deficits of $1 billion-plus.
But Ryan's disappointment is about more than a record of failing to honor his repeated pledge of fiscal responsibility. As another prominent figure — one who was a longtime Republican — has written in the nation's best-selling book, "it is also wrong to stand idly by, or worse, to stay silent when you know better, while a president brazenly seeks to undermine public confidence in law enforcement institutions that were established to keep our leaders in check." And it was wrong for the speaker of the House to sabotage one of the only places in Congress where grown-ups were in charge and rabid partisanship had been kept in check, the House Intelligence Committee, by installing and maintaining as chairman Devin Nunes, a blind partisan and unquestioning White House errand boy.
On June 1, 1950, two years after she had become the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine stood on the Senate floor and dared to take on her Republican colleague Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, whose charges of communist infiltration and subversion of the federal government dominated the national conversation and intimidated politicians in both parties.
No less a conservative intellectual than William F. Buckley defined "McCarthyism" as "a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks." But not Smith, who challenged her colleagues to weigh their consciences and "to do some soul-searching." Because of McCarthy and his unsubstantiated accusations of treason, the Senate had "been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination." Smith declared: "I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear."
No Margaret Chase Smith he, House Speaker Paul Ryan will instead be remembered, sadly, for deferentially and publicly praising Donald Trump for his "exquisite presidential leadership."
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.