From 1950 to 1954, an ill-informed, loudmouthed, bully politician — who lied, trafficked in conspiracy theories, and shamelessly defamed fellow Americans — set the tone in Washington, D.C.
He destroyed careers and lives by going after alleged communists and homosexuals in high and low places. He denigrated national institutions, such as the U.S. Army and State Department.
Where facts were lacking, as they most often were, innuendo sufficed.
Precious few of his targets were anything close to what he claimed them to be. He was a one-man wrecking ball. His name and his movement live on in infamy: Sen. Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism.
It took four years for America to exorcise this demon from its body politic. But in 1954, during the Army-McCarthy hearings, Joseph Welch, a Boston lawyer hired by the Army, found himself suddenly defending a colleague in his own law firm against a gratuitous attack by the senator.
Welch proceeded to do what many of McCarthy’s fellow Republicans, including President Dwight Eisenhower, had shied away from. He confront him directly for his excesses and boorish behavior — for the damage he was doing to the nation in the name of patriotism.
Virtually overnight Welch’s remarks would deflate the bilious senator and his self-serving movement.
Here’s what Welch said, in part: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
McCarthy’s like now holds the highest office in our land. He is Nixonian, too, except the expletives are no longer deleted, but uttered proudly for all the world to hear.
He doesn’t argue with people about issues or policy; he attacks them personally. His opponents are “lowlifes” or “low-IQ,” “failing” or “fake,” “stupid” or “corrupt” —even treasonous, he suggested recently. The tirades are getting worse as the indictments role in.
He called former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “dumb as a rock,” perhaps forgetting that he chose Mr. Tillerson for the post. Another ex-White House employee is termed “that dog.” He referred to U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff as “little Adam Schitt.”
Who says such things? Do you? Do your friends? Do people at work? How about your children?
This brief accounting of malicious commentary doesn’t scratch the surface of the president’s calumnies. A list compiled in May documented 598 people, places and things that the president has denigrated in crude, abusive and inaccurate language.
Fittingly, there is a direct connection between the late senator and our current president: Roy Cohn was the former’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings; he would later become Donald Trump’s lawyer.
How much longer we are represented by a president who acts and talks the way he does depends on us. Mr. Welch’s question might just as well be asked of you and me: do we, at long last, retain our sense of decency?
David Holahan is a freelance writer from East Haddam.