Bill Moyers: The Ghost of Joe McCarthy in Today's Republican Party
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We’ve talked at times about George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, and the amnesia that sets in when we flush events down the memory hole, leaving us at the mercy of only what we know today. Sometimes, though, the past comes back to haunt, like a ghost. It happened recently when we saw Congressman Allen West of Florida on the news.
A Republican and Tea Party favorite, he was asked at a local gathering how many of his fellow members of Congress are “card-carrying Marxists or International Socialists.”
By now, little of what Allen West says ever surprises. He has called President Obama “ a low level Socialist agitator,” said anyone with an Obama bumper sticker on their car is “ a threat to the gene pool” and told liberals like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to “ get the hell out of the United States of America.” Apparently, he gets his talking points from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or the discredited right wing rocker Ted Nugent.
But this time, we shook our heads in disbelief: “78 to 81 Democrats… members of the Communist Party?” That’s the moment the memory hole opened up and a ghost slithered into the room. The specter stood there, watching the screen, a snickering smile on its stubbled face. Sure enough, it was the ghost of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin farm boy who grew up to become one of the most contemptible thugs in American politics.
Back in the early1950’s, the Cold War had begun and Americans were troubled by the Soviet Union’s rise as an atomic superpower. Looking for a campaign issue, McCarthy seized on fear and ignorance to announce his discovery of a conspiracy within: Communist subversives who had infiltrated the government.
In speech after speech, McCarthy would hold up a list of names of members of the Communist Party he said had burrowed their way into government agencies and colleges and universities. The number he claimed would vary from day to day and when pressed to make his list public, McCarthy would stall or claim he accidentally had thrown it away.
His failure to produce much proof to back his claims never gave him pause, as he employed lies and innuendo with swaggering bravado. McCarthy, wrote historian William Manchester, “realized that he had stumbled upon a brilliant demagogic technique… Others deplored treachery, McCarthy would speak of traitors.”
And so he did, in a fearsome, reckless crusade that terrorized Washington, destroyed lives, and made a shambles of due process.
Millions of Americans lapped it up, but in the end, Joe McCarthy would be done in by the medium that he had used so effectively to spread his poison: television. In 1954, legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow bravely exposed McCarthy’s tactics on the CBS program, See It Now.
"This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent,” Murrow declared. “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.”
Later that same year, for 36 days on live TV, during Senate hearings on charges McCarthy had made questioning the loyalty of the U.S. Army, we saw the man raw, exposed for the lout and cowardly scoundrel he was. The climactic moment came as the Boston lawyer Joseph Welch, defending the Army, reacted with outrage when McCarthy accused Welch’s young associate Fred Fisher of Communism. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator,” Welch said as he shook his head in anger and sadness. “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency? … If there is a God in heaven it will do neither you nor your cause any good.”