I missed the McCarthy era. Technically speaking, I was around at the tail end of his tenure as ruler of the airwaves and print, but, as a new born, my access to those organs of communication was quite limited, and "Winky Dink and You" might have had more appeal to me than Joseph Welch lecturing McCarthy about his lack of decency.
Still, we all know the story. Bad man uses his position as chairman of a Senate committee to accuse the government of harboring communists who are aiding the Soviet Union to acquire the same atomic bomb as our country used to defeat Japan a few years earlier. Crusading television broadcaster and his producer expose the ruthless techniques used by the villainous Senator and the nation, aroused by such a telecast, proprel the Senate to censure said Senator and goodness triumphs.
But if that is the story of that era, why does it happen over and over and over again since then? How is it that we can go to a George Clooney movie, cluck about how stupid people were "back then" and just let the same thing happen again without seeing the pattern, and what is being done to our country and our politics.
You have seen the kinescope of Murrow's broadcast, no doubt, or at least you have seen parts of it or Clooney's version of it. It is a fascinating work of journalism, in a medium that had never seen much of it before, and has not since, but its point is almost always missed.
The desire to attribute our worst instincts to a specific person, to insist that it was he or she who did something wrong is a device to get the much beloved "closure" we crave, and to move on, but it also tends to exculpate the many people complicit in, for instance, the corruption of our political system. Murrow, though, spelled it out:
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."
Good night, and good luck.
Of course, Sen McCarthy did not "create" the climate of fear. It was the predecessors of today's fear mongers who did so and they did it for the same reason. To make Americans fear one another, to encourage them to believe that only one political party or one portion of a political party will protect them from what they fear and to use that fear to distract the public from the real problems we face and the means to face it.
The first national election after World War II, for instance, presented several important questions to an electorate trying to figure out how to absorb returning soldiers into a civilian economy which included, in hitherto unheard of numbers, women. The Depression had finally ended, thanks(!) to the war, and the question was whether the relationship between government and citizens which the New Deal had so radically altered was to be continued. Since the New Deal remained very popular, too, the Republican Party needed something else to talk about and the idea that it might return to its "government for the wealthiest" meme that ended with the election of President Roosevelt in 1932 basically unthinkable.
Hence, Richard Nixon ran for Congress bysuggesting his opponent was a communist(complete with what are today called "robo calls" or "push polling" where voters were asked if they knew that the opponent---Jerry Voorhis---was a communist) and when that worked, an for Senate six years later using the same general claim against Helen Gahagan Douglas.
In the meantime, with Sen McCarthy only one of the many contributors to all of this, the careers of thousands, most visibly in the motion picture, radio and fledgling television business were destroyed by whispers and those who claimed to be "in the know" whose nod and wink about "the real reason" people disagreed with a particular political position, could do the damage without ever having to "prove" anything. (Whittaker Chambers' "pumpkin papers," which Nixon helped to "uncover" contained, as we learned when they were finally disclosed in 1975, nothing of even the barest interest such as how to use a parachute or what a microphone looks like. "Uncovering them" was far more important than what they contained and, of course, they ended Alger Hiss' career and led to his imprisonment).
Fox News has a big part in this, but it has many predecessors in fan the flames duty. There was Westbrook Pegler, Walter Winchell, Fulton Lewis, the Hearst Newspapers and so on. Fox now plays the same role these "red baiters" did since, of course, it worked.
This is the same "game" being played today and if we want to wait another forty years to watch a movie about all of this, we can tsk, tsk again about how foolish people were in 2010. Somebody makes an outlandish charge, it gets repeated over and over in the echo chamber, and a new "truth" emerges.
The White House was complicit this time and, for that, they have been rightly scorned and forced to apologize, but it is not hard to understand why they did so. This is a daily occurrence, fanned not just by Fox "News" but all over cable television and even more reputable outlets. The President has been as defined by these falsehoods as by his achievements and is viewed as some profligate spender bent on creating a socialist state. That there is no evidence to support this is irrelevant because those in the know know better. Wink. Wink.
In 1950, the direct encounters between a President and the press were considered off the record unless the President permitted himself to be quoted. (This allowed for a different give and take than is possible when every word is broadcast everywhere, but those days are gone forever.)
Despite being "off the record" there are some transcripts of some of these "press conferences" around. Thus, we have this insight from President Truman when asked to support his view that Senator McCarthy was just what the Kremlin wanted, diverting the nation from what was actually before it. His answer, just before an off year election sixty years ago, describes, sadly, almost exactly what is taking place during this off year election:
the Republicans have been trying vainly to find an issue on which to make a bid for the control of the Congress for next year. They tried "statism." They tried "welfare state." They tried "socialism." And there are a certain number of members of the Republican Party who are trying to dig up that old malodorous dead horse called "isolationism." And in order to do that, they are perfectly willing to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States. And this fiasco which has been going on in the Senate is the very best asset that the Kremlin could have in the operation of the cold war. And that is what I mean when I say that McCarthy’s antics are the best asset that the Kremlin can have.
Now, if anybody really felt that there were disloyal people in the employ of the Government, the proper and the honorable way to handle the situation would be to come to the President of the United States and say, "This man is a disloyal person. He is in such and such a department." We will investigate him immediately, and if he were a disloyal person he would be immediately fired.
That is not what they want. They are trying to create an issue, and it is going to be just as big a fiasco as the campaign in New York and other places on these other false and fatuous issues.
Sixty years later, the same garbage is trotted out again in slightly different clothes with a side order of race baiting to make sure it works. Nice to know we are making progress, huh?