By David K. Shipler
On June 9, 1954, in a highly charged Washington hearing room, the elderly attorney Joseph Welch, a man partial to homespun clarity, put to Senator Joseph McCarthy the stiletto question that has entered American lore. Responding to the Wisconsin Republican’s smear of a young colleague of Welch’s, the lawyer demanded McCarthy’s full attention and began with this:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to persist, Welch cut him down: “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?”
In the old black-and-white film, McCarthy has a mean squint, a twisted look something like Donald Trump’s when attacked. Trump’s method is different, but he plays on the same ground of fear and demonization. So Welch’s question is relevant today, and it ought to be directed not only to Trump but also to the American people: Have you no sense of decency?
Or, to make a gesture toward hope: After many months of waiting, when will America’s slumbering decency awake?
For that is what eventually happened to end McCarthy’s slimy innuendos that ruined so many lives with false implications of communist affiliations, based on scanty rumors, guilt by association, and fabricated evidence. Preceded by Edward R. Murrow’s devastating televised assault on McCarthy three months earlier, Welch’s rhetorical question hit home. Huge numbers of Americans, watching live on national television, knew the answer. Decency stirred.
This episode remains as my first political memory. I was 11 years old. Coming home from school day after day, I saw my grandmother, a Southern-born, Eisenhower Republican who detested communists, sitting bolt upright in a straight-back chair in front of the TV, appalled by McCarthy’s vile slanders. She loved Joseph Welch. His gentle decency struck a chord with the decency she carried inside herself.
So it was during the Civil Rights movement as well, as Americans saw in their living rooms the contorted, hateful faces of Southern white girls screaming racist epithets outside integrating schools, the burly white cops swinging truncheons at non-resisting black protesters, the dogs and fire hoses unleashed against peaceful citizens demonstrating for their basic rights. Segregationists played their role in a pageant of brutal injustice vividly enough to stir the decency that resides in most Americans.
Where is decency now? Is it gone or just marginalized, merely dormant? For a long time, McCarthy got away with his witch-hunt as a sly weasel in an era of exaggerated fears about communist designs on America. Trump gets away with his bullying as a vicious Rottweiler in a time of real and fake fears about insecurity in all its forms. Many of his supporters are legitimately scared of their economic peril, unduly afraid of terrorism, and eager to accept the scapegoats he offers, which include the varieties of people who represent a diversifying America.
Even if Trump does not win the Republican nomination, or even if he wins that but not the White House, his supporters will remain a restive, fulminating force of anger. So he has offered the country a lesson in its failure to remember that tolerance, logic, and the acceptance of difference is not genetic but must be learned anew by each generation.
The society has failed those who accept him as he vilifies and ridicules vast groups of people, a whole religion, all who try to govern, all who disagree. It has failed those who give a Nazi salute outside his rally and shout, “Go to Auschwitz,” as one man did. It has failed those who shout, “Nigger,” and “Go back to Africa.” It has failed those who cheer his invitation to beat up protesters, the empty promises he cannot possibly fulfill, the coarse insults he levels at fellow candidates. It has failed those whose schools have not taught them to check facts, research reality, know history, follow public issues, and make decisions that are carefully informed.
On his 1954 program, “See It Now,” Ed Murrow read from the script that he and Fred Friendly had written about McCarthy. It is worth listening to today:
“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine—and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. … We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.
“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. 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, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.’”
Murrow concluded with his traditional sign-off: “Good night and good luck.”
Good luck, indeed.