The Greatness of America

I read somewhere that when “Good Night and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s film about Edward R. Murrow, was screened in LA, some of the audience wrote in review that they thought the actor portraying Senator Joseph McCarthy “over-acted.” Those remarks were quite interesting, in that Clooney didn’t cast McCarthy’s part. Instead, he had used actual footage of the senator, whose rampage against fellow citizens would be one of our darkest hours as a nation.

In an article published in 1952 in the Las Vegas Sun, a staff journalist wrote of his behavior at a party function in Nevada: “…McCarthy in his typical wild swinging fashion, with no regard for the facts but with hold on his audience that is frightening called [Hank] Greenspun ‘an ex-convict’ and ‘an admitted Communist.’” (Greenspun was the Sun’s publisher who had been convicted of smuggling arms to the Israelis.) It had been two years since the start of McCarthy’s “witchhunt,” and it would be two more years before he would be revealed as the severely alcoholic demagogue he was—a mentally deranged man who preyed on the fears of the populace and ruined, without cause, the reputations and lives of hundreds, if not thousands of innocent Americans.

It would not be a Congressman or a Senator who would deliver the knock-out blow to McCarthy’s “hold.” It would be his over-reach, his accusations with respect to the Army on live television, a new and powerful communications medium that had, ironically, fueled his rise—a mistaken judgment of his own power. (He had gone after the U.S. Army at a time when the President was the very popular general who only a decade before had been one of the masterminds who’d led the Allies and turned the tides of the Second World War.) And it would be the Army’s chief attorney at the time, Joseph Welch, whose sound-bite would be remembered: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” (Click here to see the actual footage.)

Applause erupted from the chamber when the attorney concluded his remarks, and when the hearings were over, McCarthy would be condemned by his peers for abuse of power, for “conduct contrary to senatorial traditions.” Less than three years later, he would be dead, succumbing to peripheral nephritis secondary to cirrhosis.

McCarthy wasn’t the first, by any means, to use these tactics. Nor would he be the last. It can be argued that the demagoguery of the high priest and those in religious power killed Jesus of Nazareth by playing on the fear of their constituents. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman and political scientist, had referred to this particular brand of American political manipulation a century before, when he wrote, “In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.” That’s okay, as long as the majority opinion is the “right” one (translation: the one my party espouses). But woe to us when it turns out not to be.

De Tocqueville wrote a lot more as well. For instance, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great,” and the perhaps chillingly prescient statement, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” Those two quotes placed side-by-side give me pause.

I was born the year McCarthy died. And though the decades of my childhood and adolescence were quite turbulent as my peers will agree, I still believed in the goodness of America, in the gentleness and kindness of the American people individually and as a whole. I believe in Superman, too—Superman who came from the heartland of America and unceasingly fought “the never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.”

But the “American way” that I’ve seen of late has no regard for truth or justice. We have become McCarthy-esque, reckless in our accusations, wild swinging with no regard for the facts and precious little concern with justice for those harmed by cruel words and thoughtless decisions made in service of empty political rhetoric. And we have long since been bribed by Congress with our own money, the result of which we recently saw in action. To borrow a phrase from that journalist 59 years ago, “the holds [of some] on [their] audiences…is frightening.”

I’m still hopeful, though, in spite of myself—ironically because of yet another de Tocqueville quote. My adolescent pride at being an American survived because of it. The gist of it is that, though it has admittedly sometimes taken a while, in the end, Americans have done the right thing. “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Let it be so again.

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