Last month, we commemorated the 64th anniversary of the titanic clash of decency versus indecency in American politics, and decency won. What better way to mark it than this administration’s failed, repugnant use of migrant children as political hostages in an immigration debate?
The issue 64 years ago was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, described as “the accidental demagogue” in David Halberstam’s masterpiece, “The Fifties.” The Wisconsin Republican dominated political discourse for four years by railing about a communist “deep state,” discrediting institutions (such as the federal government, entertainment industry and the media), hurling personal attacks, brazenly disregarding facts, sowing fear and distrust.
Sound familiar? McCarthy drew vehement support from right-wing base voters but, by 1954, many Americans began to tire of his cruelty. A McCarthy fatigue was setting in. In March of that year, Edward Murrow threw a devastating punch. He used the entire half-hour of his CBS television program, “See It Now,” to methodically catalogue McCarthy’s fear-mongering and inconsistencies.
At the end of that program, Murrow spoke directly to the camera, “This is no time for men who oppose Sen. McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
More than 12,000 viewers spontaneously called CBS, with a ratio of 15 to one expressing support. His popularity ebbing, McCarthy used a tactic since mastered by President Trump to regroup: Change the narrative by launching a new attack. Now the communist enabler was none other than the United States Army. The Army, in turn, accused McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn (who later mentored Donald Trump), of seeking favorable treatment for an associate who’d been drafted.
The Senate held hearings. The stage was set. On June 9, 1954, ABC televised the 30th day of the hearings. By then, McCarthy’s arguments had been effectively disassembled by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph Welch. Then the senator charged that lawyer Frederick Fisher Jr., an associate in Welch’s own law firm, was tied to the Communist Party. In front of a national audience, Welch responded, “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” He went on to ask, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
McCarthy continued fruitlessly to engage on Fisher’s association, but the damage was done. Welch refused to answer any more questions on the subject and excused himself from the hearing. The audience burst into applause. It was an “emperor has no clothes” moment, from which the emperor, McCarthy, never recovered. Murrow and Welch didn’t end his career, but they helped to bring America back to its senses.
Now we confront new indecencies. The indecency of snatching babies from parents at a border and creating military detention centers for children. The indecency that embraces a pathological North Korean dictator who starves and murders his own people, while poking traditional allies and shirking liberal democratic values. The indecency of taking a battering ram to our institutions, particularly the free press and the judiciary, for the sole purpose of weakening their ability to resist. The indecency of the many new “Roy Cohns” who advise, consent to, or help propel a dark and malicious agenda.
Undoubtedly, the 1950s were more hospitable to the likes of Welch and Murrow. Gerrymandering hadn’t yet pulled the Republican Party to the right of Genghis Khan. There was no Fox News to support McCarthy unconditionally while smearing Murrow and Welch. But these two men remind us that methodical argument and sharp clarity can pierce hysteria and define demagogues.
Within months of their appeals to our collective consciences, McCarthy was censured by the Senate, and his decline was complete. History remembers him as an embarrassment and his movement as despicable. Perhaps that’s the fate of President Trump and his enablers. Perhaps if a Welch or a Murrow arises with an ability to capture Trump’s indecency in a clear, coherent, resonant way, Trump’s craven indecency will join the history books next to McCarthy’s, where it belongs. We’re waiting.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is the author of the new novel “Big Guns,” a satire of the gun lobby. You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.