Stan Tupper: An Independent Life

February 6, 2006

Some of you here knew Stan Tupper. Some of you perhaps have only heard of him.

To some, he was an icon of the sixties, a 3-term republican congressman who won re-election the first time despite being pitted against very popular fellow congressman Peter Garland when maine lost a congressional district following reapportionment, a republican who later won re-election in a year when nearly all other republican officeholders saw defeat.

An iconoclast who stood apart from the rest…

I visited with Stan Tupper last summer, in his modest law office in the middle of Boothbay Harbor, in the back of a cape cod house, with sparse furniture, the office walls lined with old-style paneling,…the small streets of the town teeming with tourists and with the fresh smell of the ocean, the sky misty, the shops crazed with summer heat.

I found myself in downtown Boothbay Harbor, having bought more t-shirts than I would ever need…silly shirts that said things like, “Boothbay Harbor—a drinking village with a fishing problem!”…

With no more shopping to do, no more clams to mangle, no more sails to gaze upon…I stopped in to see Stan Tupper and chew the fat a while. …

Stan, whose name is synonymous with boothbay harbor…

an individual who was as steadfast as the town’s sturdy old growth spruce and granite shore, as affable and good natured as the gulls that happily wing along that shore, as practical and hard-working as the local lobstermen and laborers who ply their trade in the markets and the sea nearby.

Someone who, like them, never expected a life of comfort….but who lived a life of well-earned beauty.

Tall, slim, youthful as ever, Stan and I talked about state and local politics. We talked about the national scene, about his personal and political accomplishments and disappointments, the highs and lows of his life.

He was as outspoken as ever about the events of the day, about the sitting president, about the war in Iraq, about his strong support for John Mccain four years earlier.

I knew about his interesting political career, having appeared with him on talk shows and having talked with him on the phone occasionally.

I knew that he had been one of the last people to have qualified to practice law in maine by “reading” for the law, never spending a day inside a law school classroom.

I knew that he had served in this body back in 1953-54, where he had proven to be a fierce supporter of the fishing industry.

I knew that he was what they called “a Rockefeller Republican” and that he had been allied with former New York Mayor John Lindsay in Congress.

That he criticized the war in vietnam, when few others had spoken up…

that he supported President Johnson’s antipoverty programs, that in recent years he had helped organize three referenda to close Maine Yankee and that he had served on the U.S. Civil Rights Advisory Committee…

that he had defied his party and the special interests many times over, but had always stood strong in the public’s esteem…

and that he always remembered his roots, even when far from home, and always voted his conscience, with his constituents in mind.

And I said to myself, “thank God for Stanley R. Tupper.”

I knew that he was loyal to his town, to his party and to his country, but that he was open-minded and independent and civil to all.

I knew that while in Congress, and despite his opposition to the war, and despite the fact that he adlready had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, Stan Tupper enlisted as a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, where he served on active duty—while in Congress—in the squadron of U.S. Senator and two-star general Barry Goldwater.

I knew that, later on, Stan Tupper was the only republican officeholder in the state to refuse to endorse his good friend Barry Goldwater, as the party’s nominee for president…

that he was harrassed by extremists within this state for doing so, was even spat upon in a public meeting. When he got hate mail from people for his position, he stated, “I acknowledge all the letters. And to those who have signed their own names, I reply that they are entitled to their own views.”

but then, remarkably, he was the only major republican officeholder in Maine to win reelection that fateful year, 1964, beating out Ken Curtis by merely 203 votes! …and Ken Curtis remained a dear friend of Stan Tupper’s right up until the end of Stan’s life.

(I remember that year because it was the year my own father intended to make a comeback by running for the state senate in a safe republican county….only to lose by 83 votes to a democratic bar tender from north jay!)

and yet, it was Sen. Barry Goldwater who wrote to Stan Tupper following that election and who thanked him for sticking by him as a friend, even though Tupper hadn’t supported him, and he praised Tupper for his “consistent honesty.”

and I thought to myself, “thank God for Stanley R. Tupper.”

I knew that Stan Tupper had retired from the congress of the United States, of his own accord, at a time when polls showed his popularity to be at an all-time high, when most people would take comfort in a secure reelection, in the prospects of congressional seniority, perks and a good pension to follow.

Tuppper said, “longevity in public office is not necessarily a virtue,” and he called for the next generation of political leaders to “place more emphasis on excellence and creativity than on seniority” -- perhaps a prophetic thing to say, back in 1967.

He quit when he was ahead…. How many people spend three terms in the U.S. Congress, then just up and leave?! (sure, in recent years, we’ve had Sen. Cohen leave the senate to be Secretary Of Defense, and we’ve seen Sen. Mitchell leave Washington to follow other paths.)

but surely it takes someone who knows who he or she is… a son or daughter of Maine who knows their own soul, to make such a move.

Even after Tupper had left the congress, in 1968, columnist Jim Brunelle quoted a party regular as saying about Tupper: “he’s the only figure on the Maine political scene—including Muskie—who generates a real sense of excitement!”

so last summer he and I talked about his years in Augusta, his years in Washington, his family, and the practice of law in Boothbay Harbor.

He recommended probate law to me…he said, “the work is steady, the cases modestly lucrative, and the clientele is secure.” I kinda scoffed…but kept listening. (I figured Rep. Moulton had the corner on that market).

He talked about his grandfather, who had been a member of the state senate, who came from starks and who was Lincoln County attorney and Attorney General for a brief time.

He talked about having served as Commissioner Of Sea & Shores Fisheries for four years, and how he had to serve with the title of “Chief Warden” for a time until they’d gotten around to inventing the title of Commissioner.

When I asked, with some timidity, what he considered to be his fondest achievement…

he did not say, that his highest achievement was serving three terms in the U.S. Congress…and that he had never lost an election.

He did not say, he was most proud of having persuaded Pres. Kennedy to fund a Coast Guard station at West Boothbay Harbor…

he did not say, it was having helped pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, although i’m sure this crossed his mind…

he did not say, it was his having been a key supporter of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, putting that historic measure over the top…

he did not say, that he was most proud of achieving the rank of Ambassador during the Montreal Expo of 1967…or writing a book about U.S. – Canadian relations.

His two highest achievements, he said, were:

his family, of whom he was immensely proud—a son and a daughter, and a wife who went to law school late in life and made her own name in that profession.

His other highest achievement was his critical support of the Medicare Act of 1965, which was then called the “Lindsay-Tupper Medical Care Bill.”

he recalled how he bucked his party to be one of only six republican members of congress to vote for this measure….one of only two to actually co-sponsor it… how he, and our own Senator Margaret Chase Smith in the senate, helped that bill become law.

How he was villified in the press and by the medical establishment – hospitals and doctors who condemned “medicare” as some awful form of government intrusion into the business of health care, a form of abhorrent “socialized medicine.”

he told me with great pride, as though it were yesterday, how he went out on a limb, how he took on the establishment, how he managed to get himself invited to speak to the Medical Association’s convention that year,…he said it was like being a gun control advocate at an N.R.A. Convention.

How he patiently explained to them exactly what that legislation did, how it would save lives, keep seniors healthy, and become an economic mainstay of our culture in decades to come.

And they sat on their hands. They hated him, they hated his ideas.

But he had faced them down, he took the wrath of his party, he was condemned by many.

But, like someone raised to braving life’s waves and not rolling over during a storm, he stood his ground. He knew he was right.

And history proved him so.

Who today would dare repeal the great Medicare program, turn back the clock… and leave senior citizens to fend for themselves for critical health care….who in this room would ever vote against Medicare for seniors?

And I thought as I listened to him tell this story, “thank God for Stanley R. Tupper!”

Tupper went on in congress to cast a deciding vote for mild-mannered republican Gerald Ford against a more conservative and aggressive candidate for republican leader of the house,---a position which later catapulted Ford into the office of Vice President and, later, President, after Richard Nixon resigned.

Never shy of controversy, Tupper once stated, “I know i’ve infuriated many people, but I don’t think I ever bored anyone.”

eighteen years ago, Stan Tupper chaired a commission to study ethics in state government, after some legislative controversies….

Quoting Sophocles, he said, “there is no accuser so powerful as the conscience that dwells within us.”

he knew his own conscience, he knew that each of us must steer our own course, yet treat each other with civility and respect, and he followed his conscience throughout his public life, until his life put in to its safe and final harbor.

Stan died last month, at the age of 84.

At the time of his death, he was unenrolled.

Still, I say, “thank God for Stanley R. Tupper.”

May God keep him, and God rest his soul.

-- Rep. Janet T. Mills