Toward the end of Blacklisted by History, the late M. Stanton Evans' magnus opus on the "blacklisting by history" of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Evans takes pains to convey the "scalding invective," "the sharp exchanges with other members of the Senate" that "McCarthy's "endless verbal battles" entailed.
To gauge the ferocity of debate, we need only note that there were occasions on which members of the Senate were accused, in effect, of being agents of the Kremlin. Nor was it necessarily conceded that, in serving the nefarious ends of Moscow, the lawmaker thus assailed was mistakenly acting out of good intentions. Consider the following Senate broadside against one member of that body, accused of being a useful tool of Red subversion.
We have marveled at the way in which the Soviet Government has won its military success in Asia without risking its own resources or its own men ... What we are now seeing is another example of economy of effort and expansion of success in the conquest of this country for Communism. The preliminary campaign [in activity then occurring within the Senate] is successfully under way ... Were ... the senator [being attacked] in the pay of the Communists, he could not have done a better job for them.
Evans' narrative continues:
This was a pretty stiff indictment to be made by one member against another on the floor of the upper chamber, closely skirting, if not exceeding, the bounds of acceptable senatorial comment. It might thus understandably have brought down the wrath of the Senate on Joe McCarthy -- if he in fact had said it. But, as it happened, this wasn't anything said by McCarthy but rather something said about him, on the road to his Golgotha. The person who made this accusation was Sen. Ralph Flanders (R-Vt.), laying the polemical groundwork for the motion of censure against McCarthy he would file a few days later.
Piece by piece, cool and masterful Evans thus shifts and corrects the McCarthy narrative we all "know." Such tweaks and flips will come as a shock to most readers whose knowledge of McCarthy -- what he accomplished and how -- is quite thin. Often, it derives from or even is solely comprised of a series of buzz terms -- "censure" (with its supposed gravity of purpose and subject matter), the "Red Scare" (the supposed non-presence of covert Communists and Soviet agents in the federal government), "decency" (as in McCarthy's supposed lack thereof), and all those innocent "victims."
I decided to revisit the censure chapter of Blacklisted by History to refresh my memory on the details of the infamous Senate proceeding in late 1954 against Sen. McCarthy. Why study a political procedure that took place over sixty years ago? Aren't there more pressing matters to study? One might think.
However, the evil totems that rise from McCarthy's political grave, carved from "censure," "decency" and the other matters, still cast dark shadows over contemporary politics -- and especially over our capacity to understand contemporary politics. For example, just this past week, after Sen. Harry Reid asserted to CNN that he had no regrets about lying on the floor of the Senate in 2012 about Mitt Romney not paying his taxes -- "Romney didn't win, did he?" -- some of the media, appropriately repelled, sought to place the former Senate majority leader's unethical and reeking bravado into context. In practically one voice, they explained Harry Reid's conduct by invoking Joseph McCarthy. From CNN to Fox News, from Huffington Post to the Boston Herald, Reid's behavior drew variants of the only epithet commonly deemed to be low enough: "McCarthyite."
Under the headline "Liberals Are the New McCarthyites -- and They're Proud of it," National Review's John Fund opened an essay along similar lines by invoking the McCarthy censure:
It was just over 60 years ago that the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy were repudiated when he was censured by the Senate in December 1954. Ever since then, McCarthyism — the reckless hurling of accusations at adversaries so as to destroy their reputations — has been considered one of the lowest forms of political behavior and one liberals love to crusade against.
Fund does get the time frame right. Let's see about the rest.
In Chapter 44, "Sentence First, Verdict Later," Stan Evans separates fact from furor to explain McCarthy's censure. It's well worth picking up from Evans' text above to set the stage.
Flanders in this and further attacks made other charges against McCarthy of equally savage nature. One such was a passage in this same speech that implied, in innuendo so heavy no one could miss it, that McCarthy, [Roy] Cohn, and [David] Schine were a trio of homosexuals and that this perhaps accounted for their strange behavior. In other statements -- though this was common practice among McCarthy critics -- Flanders analogized the Wisconsin senator to Hitler. So Ralph Flanders was perhaps not the ideal person to bring charges against a colleague on grounds of rhetorical violence or uncivil conduct.
This is, by the way, the same Ralph Flanders depicted in so many standard histories as a supremely decent human being, second only perhaps to Joe Welch as a secular saint in the blessed crusade against McCarthy. Based on the now-available record, however, it appears Flanders was neither saint nor demon, but an eccentric who, for whatever reasons, became the pliable front man for divergent interests bent on doing in McCarthy. His willingness to parrot charges devised by others was such that it may well be doubted whether any particular statement Flanders made was of his own devising or something simply handed to him on his way to the Senate cloakroom.
These commments are more than speculation. Some days after his blast against McCarthy, Flanders would follow up with a list of thirty-three specific charges that became the main bill of particulars in the censure battle.
This original list would grow to include 46 charges. Guess how many of the charges McCarthy was ultimately censured for? Half of them? A dozen? Try one (1). McCarthy would be censured for exactly one (1) of the original forty-six (with a caboose of an extra charge unofficially tacked on at the end). More on that below.
Some of these charges were extremely odd, as would be admitted even by McCarthy's critics. Questioned by majority leader William Knowland and Senator Herman Welker of Idaho as to where this unusual list had come from, Flanders blandly acknowledged that the whole thing had been given to him by the National Committee for an Effective Congress. He had simply taken the NCEC material and read it out before the Senate.
One consequence of such insouciant trashing of a colleague with second-hand data was that, when challenged on specifics, Flanders was hard-pressed to explain them. One item on his roster, Charge #8, said McCarthy had unleashed his investigative staff to spy on his committee colleague, Henry Jackson. When McCarthy categorically denied this, Sen. Homer Capehart (R-Ind.) asked Flanders what proof he had for his assertion. To this Flanders replied that the charge appeared in a newspaper story but that he didn't know anything about it.
Flanders would make the same response when asked about still other of the charges. He had dramatized his role by walking into the Army hearings, while McCarthy was on the stand, and handing McCarthy a note saying an attack would be forthcoming in the Senate. McCarthy interupted his testimony and invited Flanders to make whatever allegations he cared to, under oath, then and there before the Mundt committee. Flanders not only didn't do this but, when asked about the matter later, said he might appear in such investigative format, "but I would begin by making a statement that I have nothing to testify, that I read it all in the newspapers."
The astonished reaction of Senator Capehart seems to have been apropos. Since when, Capehart asked, "does a senator of the United States, on the basis of reading something ... in a newspaper, rise on the floor of the United States Senate to condemn a fellow senator?" The answer to that, as events would show, was fairly simple: since Joe McCarthy had become a target for censure -- an undertaking in which the usual rules of evidence and rational discourse were conspicuously not adhered to. The performance of Ralph Flanders and his inability to support his charges when quizzed about them was fitting prologue to the censure hearings.
This "prologue" alone should send a tremor or two through the rock-solid conventional wisdom that has it that only the most weighty deliberations by the most serious men led to Sen. McCarthy's "censure" over ... what? What did Fund write again?
It was just over 60 years ago that the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy were repudiated when he was censured by the Senate in December 1954.
A reader might be forgiven for taking from this rather tortuous construction that McCarthy's "tactics" were censured, which in fact they were not. Indeed, those charges among the forty-six that related to tactics -- Stan Evans lists "treatment of witnesses, political speeches, the conduct of hearings, the hiring of staff" -- would, as Stan puts it, "die a-borning."
Many of the original forty-six counts were so flimsy as to fall immediately by the wayside, but even those of a presumptively serious nature would be discarded also if they contained any hint that they might be applicable to anyone other than McCarthy. All this would be hashed over by the committee, with the result that virtually all the original charges against McCarthy would be jettisoned for one reason or another.
Only one remained.
The rather amazing fact that a beginning mass of forty-six charges had now been reduced to exactly one might look like a sort of victory for McCarthy, but this was another angle from which the details were of little interest.
The important thing was that McCarthy be censured for something; what it might be was pretty much a matter of indifference. ...
The single remaining charge related to the Gillette Committee, one of five Senate committee that investigated America's most famous Red-hunter within the span of four tumultuous years. The Gillette Committee was tasked with investigating alleged McCarthy wrongdoing since his election to the Senate. Instead, as Evans writes, the committee "blithely altered this proviso to rummage through every aspect of McCarthy's finances and those of his family and friends, extending back for more than a decade before he ever ascended to the Senate." McCarthy didn't cooperate. His lack of cooperation is what he was censured for.
Twenty-two mainly northern and eastern GOP senators voted with the Democrats for censure; twenty-two GOP stalwarts from the Midwest and West voted against. (McCarthy and his GOP colleague from Wisconsin, Sen. Alexander Wiley, abstained from voting.)
... some McCarthy friends, including Everett Dirksen and Barry Goldwater, tried to broker a compromise that would avert an outright vote of condemnation. This would have involved some kind of apology by McCarthy, and a vote in the Senate that was something short of censure. According to Goldwater, McCarthy would have none of this and had thrown the pen he was asked to sign with across the room. He wouldn't crawl but would go down fighting.
Another coda: McCarthy made a final defiant speech, Stan writes, calling the Watkins inquest [censure committee], among other things
the "unwitting handmaiden" of the Communists in derailing the work of his own committee. At the last moment, a completely new censure charge would be drafted for this further assault on the dignity of the Senate panel. This was duly added to the indictment -- without any hearings or formal committee action -- and adopted in the final tally of 67 to 22 in favor of McCarthy's condemnation. Of course, what McCarthy said about the Watkins panel was no worse, indeed, less severe, than what Flanders had said about McCarthy. But then, as Watkins had correctly noted, they weren't censuring Ralph Flanders.
Thus, McCarthy's many enemies got their "censure." That this utterly shameful proceeding would be enshrined as justice for the ages is a measure of our political decadence -- not, as so many misread it, a bulwark against it.
Thirty months after this tragedy-cum-farce, McCarthy was dead at age 48. To this day, his own countrymen -- politicians and pundits, academics and dramatists, and other purveyors of "court history" -- permit him no rest in peace. On the contrary, Americans continue to evince an ever-stoked outrage over this man whose alleged villainy -- "McCarthyism" -- remains the locus of evil in our times, and allegedly knows no bounds. This obsession is not only factually flawed, it is more than a little ghoulish.
Fund's piece arguing that Democrats who lie and intimidate for political gain have themselves become what they most revile ("McCarthyite") concludes with the ultimate McCarthy cliche for good riddance.
At the time, not enough conservative leaders criticized McCarthy and stood up for civil discourse. Today, the new Pitchfork Persecutors are being led by the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate and sanctioned by the White House itself. To paraphrase Joseph Welch, the Massachusetts lawyer who faced down McCarthy in congressional hearings that preceded his censure, shouldn’t we expect more decency from some of our leaders?
With this, Fund falls for and/or promulgates one of the most successful cons in Spin History.
The famous "decency" question asked by Army counsel Joseph Welch -- "Have you left no sense of decency?" -- reverberates through the ages, its uncontained and righteous anger a seemingly irresistible invitation to hound McCarthy into perpetuity. Few can offer details about what matter it is that McCarthy was accused of having no decency over, but no matter. Best guesses conjure some such scene of McCarthy "recklessness" in "outing" some no doubt "innocent" person for Communist affiliation.
The whole thing is a demonstrable fraud and deception.
Here is the essential backstory, also courtesy Blacklisted by History, that proves it.
Before the infamous Army hearings began, a young attorney from Welch's Boston law firm came to Washington to help Army counsel Welch prepare for them. His name was Frederick Fisher. Welch asked Fisher if there was anything in his background that might prove embarrassing to their client, the Army. Fisher told him that there was something: He had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, which the Attorney General had recently named the "legal mouthpiece" of the Communist Party. Given that the Army hearings were all matters related to Communist subversion, Welch decided to send Fisher back to Boston and bring in another assistant.
According to the April 16, 1954 edition of the New York Times, Welch
confirmed news reports that he had relieved from duty his original second assistant, Frederick G. Fisher, Jr., of his own Boston law office because of admitted previous membership in the National Lawyers Guild, which has been listed by Herbert Brownell, Jr., the Attorney General, as a Communist-front organization.
This New York Times story in which Welch himself confirms Fisher's membership in a Communist front organization appeared six weeks before the Welch-McCarthy "decency" exchange in question.
To make sure the cone of misinformation is penetrated, let me restate: In asking his famous question of McCarthy, Welch was castigating McCarthy for a lack of "decency" for referencing news about Fisher that Welch was himself the source of!
Since there is an eye-rubbing aspect to all of this, it may be advisable to read the previous sentence a second time. This fact is so far from postmodern consensus that it may also be helpful to look at the NYT news story as it is reproduced and discussed on pp. 568-569 in Blacklisted by History.
Indeed, it was McCarthy's statement about the news story to an aide -- "Jim [Juliana], will you get the news story to the effect that this man [Fisher] belonged to this Communist front organization?" -- that triggered Welch's immortal reply.
From Blacklisted by History, p. 567. It is, as Stan notes, "worth studying in detail to get context and flavor."
Until this moment, Senator, I think I never fully grasped your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to Harvard Law School and came with my firm and is starting what looks like a brilliant career with us ... Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad ... I fear that he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. (Emphasis added.)
When McCarthy then attempted to give some background on the National Lawyers Guild, plus a strong tu quoque about the harm done to the reputations of Frank Carr and other young McCarthy staffers by the charges Welch had signed his name to, the Army counsel again lamented the injury to Fisher.
Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you left no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this with you further. You have been within six feet of me, and could have asked me about Fred Fisher. You have brought it out. If there is a God in Heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it with you further. (Emphasis added.)
Subsequently, we're told, Welch broke into tears and the audience in the Senate chamber responded with sustained applause.
Welch deserved an Academy Award for this performance but not a lock on the role a history's Moral Arbiter on McCarthy. Indeed, what Fund defines as "McCarthyism" -- "the reckless hurling of accusations at adversaries so as to destroy their reputations" -- describes exactly what Welch did to McCarthy. Welch has since been celebrated for it, and also haloed.
Indeed, sixty-plus years later, in the pages of National Review, it is again Welch who plays moral foil to censured McCarthy in Fund's piece. Again, it concludes:
To paraphrase Joseph Welch, the Massachusetts lawyer who faced down McCarthy in congressional hearings that preceded his censure, shouldn’t we expect more decency from some of our leaders?
Without paraphrasing Welch, the answer is yes. And whole lot more truth from our history.