Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lessons from the Fifties: Part One, McCarthyism

Treatment of President Obama by the far right has been aptly called "the new McCarthyism". In light of this despicable current syndrome taking place, I thought it would be useful to examine what the original McCarthyism was like and how it developed. The account is taken from David Halberstam's "The Fifties".

Halberstam says the phenomenon had already existed, but McCarthy's involvement began with a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia on 2/9/50. He made an offhand comment during his speech that there were Communists in the State Department and that they controlled foreign policy. He claimed he "had in his hand" a list of 205 Communists in the State Department, but didn't have time to name them. A local Wheeling reporter mentioned this in his story on the speech, and it was picked up by the AP and the circus began.

McCarthy next flew to Denver where he said at an airport press conference that the list was in his other suit. Then he was on to Reno, where two reporters undertook to pin him down on this list accusation. McCarthy had never met them, but he put his arms around them like they were old buddies. McCarthy would not be pinned down, but said to come to his speech that night and names would be given. At the speech that night he did name four names, but it was unclear what he was accusing them of. His words were deliberately vague, which led one reporter to exclaim that "Talking to Joe was like putting your hands in a bowl of mush".

Since it was unclear what the number was being claimed (seemingly it had gone from 205 to 4), the reporters collared McCarthy after the speech and went out drinking with him. One said later that he had never seen anybody drink so much so quickly. The reporters repeatedly tried to pin McCarthy down on just what he was claiming, but he dug into his pockets and could find no list, and at one point he accused the reporters of stealing his list!

And so it continued. McCarthy's basic charge was that the Democrats were "soft on Communism". Halberstam says that "the real scandal in all this was the behavior of the members of the Washington press corps, who, more often than not, knew better". But they enjoyed the way McCarthy cozied up to them, and they consistently refused to press him for substantiation of his vague charges.

Many right-wing demagogues in Congress played the same game. Richard Nixon beat a respected incumbent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, in a campaign which Halberstam says was "virtually a case study in red-baiting". The most interesting example is Robert Taft, "the most elegant and principled Republican in the Senate", who Halberstam says was like two people: one was "the thoughtful conservative who was uneasy with the coming of America the superpower and its growing obsession with anti-Communism", while the other Taft "could exploit the fall of China and attack the administration for being soft on Communism". Halberstam says that Taft's throwing in with McCarthy was "a low moment in an otherwise highly principled career".

Similarities to today are readily apparent. The "birthers" disdain the documentary evidence of Obama's birth, in favor of vague charges which they cannot substantiate. Even when shown a birth certificate and a newspaper announcement of his birth, they refuse to back off of their baseless accusations.

The role of journalists in McCarthyism is disturbing. At first blush one might suppose that after Watergate the role of the press has improved in regard to investigative journalism. Certainly Watergate led to a huge increase in interest in journalism on the part of college students. But it is one thing to be interested in a field, and another to actually be able to pursue the interest and make a living at it. In order to make a living, somebody has to be willing to pay you.

Upon examination it seems the failing of the press today is as severe as ever. Just think of the thousands of inches of ink, and the thousands of hours of air time, devoted to things like the O.J. Simpson trial and President Clinton's affair with a White House intern. Where is the coverage of truly important things, like global warming, going to war in Iraq on phony evidence, all the problems of disease and poverty in Third World countries, and on and on. The conclusion is inescapable that the media fails us daily in not reporting on the truly important issues that we need to know about in order to become better citizens of this world. The axiom "if it bleeds, it leads" is, sadly, still the norm.

The "soft on Communism" charge has been plaguing the Democrats ever since McCarthy. Sensitivity to this charge led Democratic Presidents to take us into war in Korea in the '50's, and Vietnam in the '60's. And today, Obama is no doubt sensitive to the charge of "soft on terrorism", the modern counterpart to the old accusation during the McCarthy era. People like Dick Cheney irresponsibly throw this type of charge around every chance they get. No doubt Obama's unfortunate Afghanistan escalation is based on a desire to appear tough on terrorism.

Another point is the danger of letting fear rule our lives. We did it in the McCarthy era, when we lost sight of our core values, and when fear of Communism caused Truman, an otherwise great President, to go off the deep end under the delusion that "fighting Communism" was essential. Today we let fear dictate a surge in our troop presence in Afghanistan, a surge which is totally unsupported by any intellectual thought process. In the process of surging, we will lose more Americans than would otherwise be in danger from terrorist acts.

A final point is that McCarthy showed how negative campaigning can work, if by "work" we mean win an election. We have seen despicable use of negative campaigning by Republicans ever since McCarthy. Nixon hit "law and order" in '68, his point being that Democrats were "soft on crime". Watergate can also be seen as an outgrowth of McCarthyism, the idea that it is an "us against them" world, a world in which it was deemed necessary to compile an "enemies list", and persecute your political opponents using the IRS, the FBI, and the CIA. Ford and Reagan were decent campaigners, but then we come to the first Bush in '88 and his despicable Willie Horton ads, painting Dukakis as soft on crime because of a furlough program, the irony of which is that the federal government at the time had a similar furlough program and a similar mishap which Dukakis could have fired back with had he been willing to get down in the gutter with Bush. Then of course in '04 we had the "Swift boat" ads which lied about John Kerry's war record. All of this can be traced back to the demonstration by McCarthy that just saying negative things, regardless of whether they are factual or not, and repeating those things over and over, will bring success in an age in which the media is willing to disseminate everything you say to a gullible and ill-informed electorate, without offering that public any intelligent analysis of the lies being propagated.

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