For a brief, shining moment — back when he was boorishly belittling Colonel Khan and his wife — it looked like Donald Trump had finally reached his “have you no sense of decency, sir?” moment.
For many in my generation who weren’t alive at the time — and I wasn’t — it’s still a well-known, even transcendent moment in American history.
Still near the height of his national popularity, Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy turned his Communist witch hunting crusade on the U.S. Army, claiming it harbored at least 130 known party members or subversives. On the 30th day of the much-watched hearings — it seems quaint now, but ABC TV carried them live, gavel to gavel — U.S. Army counsel Joseph Nye Welch famously did what so many others hadn’t yet shown the courage to do.
In response to an attack on a young colleague, the little-known Welch famously told McCarthy: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Many viewed it as a fatal blow — or at least the beginning of the end — to McCarthy’s besotted career. His national popularity plummeted even faster than it had dramatically risen. Within 6 months, he had been censured in a bipartisan 67-22 vote by his U.S. Senate colleagues. Just three years later he was dead at 48.
But Welch’s famous questions couldn’t have had the impact they did were it not for another singular act of courage 3 months earlier. On March 9th, one of the nation’s then-most well known journalists, CBS’s Edward R. Murrow, devoted the entire 30 minutes of his “Here it Now” broadcast to detailing (usually in McCarthy’s own words) the many ways he had insinuated, bullied, and lied his way into a position of national power. It was a risky move by CBS; a Gallup poll taken just a month earlier showed McCarthy at what would prove the apex of his popularity, with a favorable to unfavorable rating of 50 to 29 percent.
An excerpt of Murrow’s broadcast — and a snippet of McCarthy’s smarmy response to it — is worth watching below. (The full transcript can be found here.)
None other than a young Ray Cohn, who two decades later befriended and advised an admiring Donald Trump “If they hit you, hit back 10 times harder,” was McCarthy’s chief counsel and consigliere. And then there are the truly strange parallels. Russia then — and Russia now, with Trump’s continuing admiration for Russian leader Vladimir Putin — played its role in both dramas, though in far different ways.
But other differences are even more dismaying. As Today‘s Matt Lauer painfully revealed this week, despite his own popularity he’s certainly no Edward R. Murrow. The only really tough questions and pursuit, 12 minutes worth, were reserved for Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Not a single question challenged Trump’s supposed 2003 opposition to the Iraq War, much less his attack on the Khans’ patriotism.
As the New York Times recently noted, at least 110 prominent Republicans to date have at least declined to endorse Trump. And that’s heartening. But precious few, to date, have shown the courage to announce their willingness to do what, far and away, will most likely make a real difference: publicly declare their willingness to vote against him, in a truly meaningful way. That’s not an abstention, or a “protest vote” for Gary Johnson, much less Jill Stein, but an affirmative vote (however unpleasant it might be) for Hillary Clinton in 2016 so that the party faithful can then quickly get to work trying to find a worthy candidate to defeat her in 2020.
Clinton herself is certainly a flawed nominee, with detractors both within and outside her own party. But this has been true with virtually every U.S. president in recent memory, on both sides. There are flaws, doubts, and misgivings about any politician’s inevitable dissemblings, half-truths, and even lies. And then there is the far more basic question of fitness for the most powerful office in the world.
A half century ago, Joe McCarthy proved himself unfit to serve as a U.S. senator — though even then his colleagues couldn’t muster the wherewithal to expel him, for all the careers and lives he cavalierly ruined. Not even General Eisenhower could bring himself to publicly rebuke McCarthy, choosing instead to undercut him behind the scenes.
As early as 1950, a handful of Republican Senators — led by Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith, who McCarthy would deride in Trumpian-fashion, along with six like-minded colleagues as “Snow White and the Six Dwarves” — were at least willing to at least denounce McCarthy’s tactics, if not the man himself. But it wasn’t until June 1954, several months after Murrow’s broadcast, that the first of them, Republican Senator Ralph Flanders of Vermont, stepped forward to urge specific action to strip McCarthy of his committee chair and censure him.
By sheer virtue of being the Republican nominee, Trump is on the cusp of attaining a political office exponentially more powerful than the one McCarthy held. As historians have clearly shown, McCarthy wasn’t totally wrong about Communist Party efforts to infiltrate U.S. government agencies beginning in the 1930s. Similarly, many of the trade, economic, and even immigration issues raised by Donald Trump and his supporters reflect legitimate grievances, and are legitimate items for discussion.
But history is sadly replete with examples of men (and they’ve almost all been men) who espoused popular, even thoughtful policies, and yet who were spectacularly unfit to serve in executive office. It’s also a basic fact of civics, forgotten or never learned in the first place by so many citizens.
Presidents don’t make our laws; only Congress can do that. Instead, our founders gave the president the power and responsibility to execute and enforce those laws , even when they might personally disagree with them. As Murrow famously said in 1954, “It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.” Trump has now crossed — and in the next 60 days will likely continue to cross — similar kinds of lines, both in his reckless rhetoric and his past behavior as a private citizen.
And while it seems a bit quaint and dated, with the reference to Shakespeare and all, Murrow’s closing paragraph in that 1954 broadcast deserves note. For it’s a summons, not just to members of a particular political party, but to everyone of us as citizens first and partisans after that.
The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Only a handful of people in today’s America have the stature and the credibility today to play the roles of Edward R. Murrow or Senator Flanders. Who are they? And in the next 60 days, who among them will show the courage to do what needs to be done to spare America — and the world — of giving this shallow and dangerous man such enormous power?