Obama Needs a Joseph Welch Moment
Those were the words that Army lawyer Joseph Welch finally hurled at Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1954 televised Army-McCarthy hearings, and within moments the gallery in the Senate hearing room erupted in applause.
But it wasn’t just the gallery. Americans, uncertain how to deal with the smears and lies McCarthy had been spewing for four years, finally could cheer that someone was standing up to the demagogue from Wisconsin. With the hearings televised and McCarthy’s tactics exposed to the public in full force, Welch’s words would be a turning point, a sign that the lies and the fear-mongering would end. A nation intimidated by a larger-than-life, swaggering McCarthy saw him diminished, a bully cut down to size and outed as the small man he truly was. McCarthy soon slinked away, discredited, a shameful episode in our nation’s history coming to a bittersweet close.
John McCain’s serial lies about Barack Obama may not rise to the drama of an Army-McCarthy hearing, and they may not go down in history as emblematic of this moment in history, but in many ways they’re as poisonous and corrosive to our democratic system. If McCain’s strategy of bald and blatant lying is the only means to get elected president in this country, then truth no longer matters in our politics and campaigns are reduced to who will most loudly and shamelessly exploit dishonesty to win the White House.
No matter what you think of McCain – whether you admire his life story or support his proposals or wholeheartedly agree with his political philosophy – his shameless and brazen lying throughout this campaign, seemingly unencumbered by conscience and principle, are simply inexcusable.
The McCain lies seem to multiply by the day. In one ad, he says Obama favors “comprehensive sex education” for kindergartners; the truth is that Obama supports young kids learning how to protect themselves from sexual predators. In speeches, he repeatedly says that Obama will raise taxes on middle-class Americans; the truth, as documented by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, is that Obama will actually cut taxes for Americans earning up to $250,000 per year, and his tax cuts for the vast majority of us, those making up to about $110,000 per year, would far exceed what McCain would give back.
McCain and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, have dissembled repeatedly about her record, most notably on her claim that she opposed and killed the infamous Bridge to Nowhere and fought earmark spending, when in fact she enthusiastically supported the bridge when running for governor, accusing “spinmeisters” of distorting the project’s virtues, and when governor she accepted the money originally earmarked for the bridge and used it for other projects. She also fibbed on where she’s traveled overseas, lying about visiting Iraq and Ireland, perhaps to obscure her near complete lack of exposure to cultures abroad.
McCain has run various ads – including the notorious Lipstick on a Pig accusation – that falsely and outrageously accuse Obama of sexism and simply lie about the facts. And in what may have been the boldest and most cynical lie of all, the campaign ran an ad using the credibility FactCheck.org, a trusted fact checking site sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, to accuse Obama of sliming and spreading false information on Palin when in fact FactCheck.org said nothing of the sort. FactCheck.org, almost indignant that its credibility had been exploited to promote a lie, responded that McCain’s ad is “particularly egregious” and “goes down new paths of deception.”
There are others, and they’re detailed in great depth on the Internet. As the normally staid and by-the-book Associated Press said, “Even in a political culture accustomed to truth-stretching, McCain's skirting of facts has stood out this week.” Yes, Obama has stretched the truth at times – for example, taking out of context McCain’s statement that we might have to be in Iraq for 100 years. But whatever ethical lines Obama has toed in no way compare to the stunning, shameless, and serial lying that John McCain has committed repeatedly in this campaign. To paraphrase the famous line used in Vietnam about destroying a village in order to save it, McCain is willing to destroy the truth in order to win this election.
All of this brings us back to Joseph Welch and the Army-McCarthy hearings. Obama has disputed every one of these lies, as has the press, but it’s an article of faith in communication studies that lies have a way of sticking if they’re stated often enough, and earnestness is no defense against repeated and bald-faced lying. What McCain seeks to do is create distrust of Obama, to make us feel anxious about Obama – and since the behavioral response to anxiety and distrust is avoidance and doubt, then McCain will have succeeded in distancing Americans from Obama’s character, candidacy, and anything he has to say.
At the same time, no matter how successful McCain’s strategy may be, there’s a part of us that knows McCain is lying, just as Americans knew that McCarthy was ruining lives and reputations even if they stayed quiet about it. What Americans were waiting for back then, and what might work right now, is the type of indignation that Welch communicated – an indignation that broke through the lies, crystallized public discomfort, and bared McCarthy’s demagoguery for all to see. McCarthy simply seemed far smaller after Welch took him on.
So imagine Obama turning to McCain in their debate, a glint of anger and disgust in his eyes, listing all the lies thrown his way and saying with a simple but heartfelt passion: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
That might be the game-changer of this election.
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Oscar Chamberlain - 9/16/2008
It's easy to forget that McCarthy's contribution to the era did not begin until 1950. By then, most if not all of the important investigations into spies in the government had begun.
He cannot even be said to have begun the cultural crusade in which guilt by association became a weapon against anyone left of center in public life.
He did make that crusade worse, and eventually, he became the symbol of the bankrupt nature of politics based on such crusades.
As such, McCarthy's legacy is something of a contribution to civil liberties, as he made the despicable nature of these tactics all too visible.
Mike A Mainello - 9/15/2008
McCarthy's tactics were harsh to say the least, but he also exposed an on going problem during the time period.
I remember reading President Regan's autobiography and his recollections of this time period in Hollywood. Both as an actor and the union president, he had to face many rumors, but also many communists trying to take over Hollywood to spread their propaganda.
Michael Green - 9/15/2008
To answer your question simply, no. This is the man who claimed The New York Times magazine employed 126 Communists when the entire magazine staff consisted of 93 people.
If you want to win the battle for conservative ideology, go ahead. There is a lot to be said for it--and I say that as a liberal. But every time someone on the right invokes Joe McCarthy, it just hurts their cause.
Mike A Mainello - 9/14/2008
As a conservative that has been watching all of the Obama Mania coming from the media, I am just having a grand time watching all of you liberals in a panic.
I am not going to debate policy and honesty in advertising, all politicians shade the truth to include your golden, inexperienced candidate.
It is just a hoot seeing the conservative base fired up and the very real possibility that one house of congress may switch back to Republican control.
Just like the Swiftboat Vets truthfully exposed a phony war hero, wasn't Senator McCarthy proven right about many communists in the government?
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