Tuesday, October 18, 2005

McCarthy back in fasion

"Good Night, and Good Luck" - Joe McCarthy Rides Again

October 18, 2005
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers <http://www.crisispapers.org>

Whenever I have a dream, I ask myself: "Why this dream now? What is
happening in my life at this moment that would engender these particular

The same question has to be asked about "Good Night, and Good Luck,"
George Clooney's powerful docudrama about the McCarthy era of the 1950s:
"Why make this film now? Is there something happening in our society,
our media, our politics that would make audiences resonate with a
low-budget film, shot in black-and-white, about the 1950s in America?"

It seems clear that director Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov see a
direct contemporary parallel with the anti-communist political
witch-hunting of the 1950s, the unwillingness of most of the media to
take on the bullyboy of that era. In our own time, an arrogant, bullying
Administration is ruining the country, running roughshod over the
Constitution, and questioning the patriotism of any who oppose them,
much as Senator Joe McCarthy did with anyone who raised questions about
his methods of hunting down suspected communists.

These days, of course, one substitutes "terrorists" for "communists."

Think I'm exaggerating? How about the White House orchestrating a smear
of Ambassador Joseph Wilson because he publicly questioned Bush's
twisted evidence for going to war in Iraq - and then, as a special
revenge-bonus, key Administration officials outed Wilson's wife, Valerie
Plame, as a covert CIA officer? (Indictments in this case, and the
coverup that followed, are expected within the next week or two.)

How about then-Attorney General John Ashcroft telling Congress that
those who ask pointed questions about the legalities of the
Administration's "war on terrorism" give aid and comfort to "the enemy"?
(Here's Ashcroft's exact quote: "To those who scare peace-loving people
with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid
terrorists - for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.
They give ammunition to America's enemies...")

How about then-Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warning "all Americans that
they need to watch what they say" about the Administration's
anti-terrorism policies, and the comments of Administration hatchetmen
in the press, such as Ann Coulter, calling anti-Bush liberals "traitors"
who deserve to be shot?

How about White House Press Secretary Scott McLellan questioning the
patriotism of veteran correspondent Helen Thomas just a few days ago
because she "expressed her concerns" about the Bush Administration's
handling of the Iraq War? Here's the official transcript of the key
exchange, including ABC's Terry Moran nailing McClellan. Thomas has
asked several questions about Bush's policies in Iraq:

McCLELLAN: Well, Helen, the President recognizes that we are engaged
in a global war on terrorism. And when you're engaged in a war, it's
not always pleasant, and it's certainly a last resort. But when you
engage in a war, you take the fight to the enemy, you go on the
offense. And that's exactly what we are doing. We are fighting them
there so that we don't have to fight them here. September 11th
taught us -

THOMAS: It has nothing to do with - Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

McCLELLAN: Well, you have a very different view of the war on
terrorism, and I'm sure you're opposed to the broader war on
terrorism. The President recognizes this requires a comprehensive
strategy, and that this is a broad war, that it is not a law
enforcement matter. Terry.

TERRY MORAN: On what basis do you say Helen is opposed to the
broader war on terrorism?

McCLELLAN: Well, she certainly expressed her concerns about
Afghanistan and Iraq and going into those two countries. I think I
can go back and pull up her comments over the course of the past
couple of years.

MORAN: And speak for her, which is odd.

McCLELLAN: No, I said she may be, because certainly if you look at
her comments over the course of the past couple of years, she's
expressed her concerns -

THOMAS: I'm opposed to preemptive war, unprovoked preemptive war.

MR. McCLELLAN: - she's expressed her concerns.


Well, you get the idea. Criticize the Administration, have your ideas
distorted, your reputation smeared, your patriotism questioned - with
the consequences, of course, that your job, and perhaps even your life,
could be placed in jeopardy. (Many of Plame's contacts, for example,
ones that she had built up over a decade as a covert CIA agent working
in the field of weapons of mass destruction, were compromised and may
well have been eliminated in their home countries.)

What emanates from the top works its stink down to the grassroots. There
are instances of folks being refused passage on airplanes because a
group with which they're associated is critical of the Bush
Administration, or they're wearing anti-Bush buttons or T-shirts. And
there are all those citizens who are bounced from Bush rallies,
supposedly open to the public, because they don't look right or are
known to be Democrats. Or, a student is kicked out of school for wearing
an anti-Bush logo on his T. Or, one of my favorites, Bush telling a
citizen on a rope line who asked him a pointed question, "Why should I
care what you think?"

We pay Bush's salary but the only people he wants to hear from are large
GOP donors and the criminally-liable lackies and toadies down there in
the Bush Bunker with him - or, as we learned last week, from
carefully-scripted military officers in Iraq (not ordinary soldiers)
feeding back to him the war talking-points they'd rehearsed with a
Pentagon public-relations specialist. Oh, by the way, one of those
supposed "combat troops" praising Bush's policy, the one sitting in the
front row at the far left, turns out to be a Pentagon public-relations

Despite the Bush Administration buying off name journalists to spout its
propaganda message (the hiring of talk-show host Armstrong Williams
finally is being investigated as a possible crime); despite
manufacturing its own propaganda "news reports" and then sending them to
TV stations around the country as real journalism; despite the staged
photo-ops in New Orleans and Iraq, on sets immediately dismantled after
the shoot; despite the GOP's control of the House and the Senate and
most of the corporate media - despite all that, Bush's ratings continue
to plummet, to the lowest point of his tenure in office, down in the
30s, even sliding fast among Republicans. Finally, the veils have come
off the public vision, and they are beginning to see Bush & Co. for what
it is.


On the one hand, that's good news for those of us dedicated to a
restoration of Constitutional rule, and to bringing the troops home
alive from Iraq ASAP. On the other hand, I must confess I'm really
nervous. The Bush Bunker crew right now are desperate, on the ropes, and
have painted themselves into a felonious corner of their own devising.
Beware wounded beasts; when they feel trapped, they are liable to strike
out in a desperate attempt at survival.

As the Plamegate indictments approach; as Bush's popularity ratings
continue to fall precipitously; as the situation in Iraq continues to
deteriorate, referendum or no referendum; as the true nature of Bush's
unfeeling ideology toward ordinary people became even more clear in the
wake of the Katrina disaster; as the corruption and corporate thievery
proceeds apace - as all these negatives continue to build pressure in
the White House, one can anticipate a wide variety of major distractions
and violent initiatives, both foreign and domestic.

What might some of those be? In one effort to get the Plamegate
indictments off the front page, we can anticipate that Saddam Hussein's
show-trial in Iraq will dominate the front pages and TV-news broadcasts
to tell us yet again what a monster dictator this guy was, thus leaving
precious little space or airtime available for the White House's ethical
and criminal problems. (Let's just stipulate: Saddam was one of the
worst dictators ever, nobody mourns his loss from power - and now let's
get back to the real news.)

In addition, I would not be surprised if the U.S. or Mideast ally Israel
moved to take out Iran's nuclear power plants and research facilities. A
massive bombing, with all the ramifications of such action in the Muslim
world, would do wonders to divert attention. Likewise, ratcheting up the
military pressure on Syria, after the U.S. recently started up
hostilities along, and perhaps even beyond, the border with Iraq. Or,
the Bush Administration may choose once again to look the other way when
a major terrorist incident is about to happen inside the U.S.


Karl Rove's M.O. always has always been, "when in trouble, attack."
Don't let the opposition even get close to defining the agenda and
parameters of discussion. As Rove himself is about to be attacked, I
would think he might have even more motivation to pull out all the
survival stops and arrange for something drastic to become Topic #1,
rather than permitting the American public to focus on the high crimes
and misdemeanors of the Bush Administration before the judicial dock.

And rest assured, the Plamegate indictments will have ramifications way
beyond those charged. Once the perp-walks take place, once those trials
begin - and probably long before as key elements of the case are leaked
- the dirty secrets inside the White House will be revealed; Republican
Senators and House members, anxious to be re-elected, might well
back-pedal away so fast from BushCheneyRoveLibby that in the rush you'll
barely be able to read the impeachment bill they'll agree to support.

In addition, GOP power-brokers and economic leaders, anxious to keep the
markets stable and their profits predictable, might bow to the
inevitable and their own self-interests and jettison their support for
the Bush Administration, putting their money behind other, less-tainted

What would follow impeachment trials - assuming Bush and Cheney don't do
a Nixon and resign first? One would hope that the political lessons
would have been learned by those next in line - be it Hastert or Stevens
or Rice or Rumsfeld. Whoever would take over from Bush would be reading
the 2006 pre-election polls and, realizing that the Republicans are
going to be swept out of power bigtime - to even try to manipulate the
election returns in that kind of landslide would be counterproductive -
might well abandon the imperial adventuring and corporate looting and
advocacy of torture as state policy and shredding of Constitutional
protections, etc. etc. In other words, there would be some movement
toward the middle.


Which brings us back to "Good Night, and Good Luck." Something similar
happened to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the '50s: he was riding as high as
any political demagogue could, for years virtually controlling the
government and America's socio-political agenda in his anti-communist
frenzy - ruining the reputations of honorable men and women with
impunity - and then, suddenly, he went too far, was shamed and
humiliated and was isolated by his fellow senators and his powers
removed. He died of alcoholism-related diseases a few years later.

For those unfamiliar with McCarthy and the political/social mayhem he
caused 50 years ago - along with the vigilante movement he spawned
("McCarthyism") - here's a brief primer. Waving what he claimed were
lists of names of alleged communists inside the State Department and
elsewhere in the government, and denouncing citizens left and right for
alleged "communist sympathies," and with few in academia, the media and
government willing to take him on and risk being called a "pinko" or
worse, McCarthy became the locus of malevolent power in America,
dispensing a kind of toxic poison all around the country that created
fear and kept people from fully exercising their rights as citizens.
Keep your mouth shut and your head down - that was the operating
principle in the McCarthy period.

McCarthy's downfall was that he didn't know where to stop, or when;
indeed, he believed he was unstoppable. But after hounding show-biz
personalities and academics and media reporters and lower-level
government employees, McCarthy began attacking the U.S. Army leadership,
including war-hero General George Marshall, at which point former
four-star general Dwight David Eisenhower, now President Eisenhower, had
had enough. The battle was joined, and CBS star newsman Edward R. Murrow
attacked McCarthy frontally and wounded him enough so that others,
including Boston attorney Joseph Welch and McCarthy's fellow Senators
could finish him off.

But you don't get a lot of this important layering-history in "Good
Night, and Good Luck," which prefers to focus almost exclusively and
insularly on the battle between Murrow/CBS and McCarthy. But McCarthy's
arrogant recklessness went far beyond the mass media. One of my former
university teaching colleagues, for example, had been denounced by a
touring McCarthy as a "communist sympathizer" from the stage of the
university where he taught; my colleague (who, of course, was no pinko
sympathizer, just one of the few academics in the loyalty-oath McCarthy
era still courageous enough to ask questions) lost that job and, even
though he located another teaching position years later, he was
emotionally scarred, easily frightened and very afraid to speak his mind
in public. Others suffered similar harassments even though their only
crime was having names similar to the real suspects. It was a true
witch-hunt, with people naming names willy-nilly - or being forced to
publicly denounce their parents - just to clear themselves.


The unspoken assumption in "Good Night, and Good Luck" is that there may
have been a few communists inside and outside the government that were
worth paying serious attention to, but if there were, laws and
procedures were in place for uncovering and dealing with them; the glory
of our country's system is that one can pay attention to the civil
liberties afforded suspects even when going after them legally. The
unspoken assumption in our own time is that there may be al-Qaida
sleeper cells inside the U.S., but, even if that were true, you don't
need to use a sledgehammer to kill some gnats, wrecking the entire
Constitutional house in the process.

McCarthy was encouraged by Republicans in the 1950s to rampage around
looking for supposed Communists - and bullying everyone in his path -
because it would reap the party political advantage in the post-World
War II Cold War hysteria. Republicans today encourage, or at least
acquiesce to, the Bush Administration's incompetent rampaging in search
of "terrorist" suspects, shredding badly the protections of the
Constitution, because it serves their electoral advantage in a society
frightened by the prospect of future terrorist attacks.

"Good Night, and Good Luck" - which, in a brilliant stroke, stars Joseph
McCarthy as himself (from newscasts of the time) - is not a consistently
great movie. It barely captures the social sweep and damage done by
McCarthyism outside the CBS newsroom, and in its desire to glorify the
courageous work of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow (played brilliantly by
David Straithairn) and his colleague Fred Friendly (Clooney), it
overlooks that fact that others took on McCarthy long before they did.
But, despite its flaws, it's a riveting and socially important film, one
we need to ruminate upon for its messages for our own time and situation
- lest we continue to repeat bad history.

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has
taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San
Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers
<http://www.crisispapers.org>. For comments, write
crisispapers@comcast.net <mailto:crisispapers@comcast.net>.

Crisis Papers Archive

Print this article (printer-friendly version) <javascript:window.print()>
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article

Jump to Editorials and Other Articles forum


Post a Comment

<< Home