It happened today - June 9, 2015

Joseph N. Welch (left) being questioned by Senator McCarthy, June 9, 1954 On June 9 back in 1954 Senator Joseph McCarthy was undone by his worst enemy. Himself. He’d dug himself into a very deep hole by charging that the U.S. army was “soft” on communism earlier that year. And on June 9 in a famous confrontation captured by this new-fangled “television” (I once had a landlord so cheap he still had a 1948 OED and in it “television” was the process of sending images and the set that received them was a “televisor”) he was reduced to rubble by lawyer Joseph N. Welch during a hearing of his subcommittee of the Senate Government Operations Committee.

Now McCarthy was his own worst enemy, from his list of known communists whose number kept changing but whose names never appeared to his alcoholism. He was also in many ways the worst enemy of anti-Communists. There was a real problem with their infiltration into the U.S. government including the famous case of Alger Hiss, on which you can not do better than to read Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness is about far more than just the issue of communism and I cannot recommend it too highly, a must-read biography of a remarkable man. But McCarthy did more to discredit vigilance on this score than anyone, both then and since. Indeed, accusations of McCarthyism are still frequently hurled at those who question someone’s loyalty or judgement, long after the Senator (1957) and the Soviet Union (1991) were laid to rest. Chambers himself, in a characteristically gentle verdict, called McCarthy an “ineffective” anti-communist.

He was that, and more. What is remarkable about the famous confrontation, though, is how unwatchable it is today. McCarthy is certainly unprepossessing in the TV footage, sneering, badgering, whispering to aides, nasal, raising petulant points of order. But when I wanted to convey this pivotal moment to students, more to illustrate the power of this new technology than to convince them that McCarthy was wretched, a point on which none who had heard of him were in doubt, I could not.

I could find the footage, all right. It’s easy to locate online. But it’s boring and endless, even the crucial moment when Walsh says “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness” and then asks his once-famous question “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

You can easily find the exchange online. (Incidentally I Googled this on June 8 and got all kinds of hits of Jade McCarthy and Sara Walsh on Sportscentre including crass comments on their legs and worse, a sorry comment on our supposedly enlightened times. So be sure to include Joe McCarthy and David Walsh.)

What is not clear is why the original so impressed people at the time as to make Walsh’s question famous and bring about a Senate censure of McCarthy, who died less than three years later, still in office but utterly discredited. I could not find a brief excerpt worth showing the students; the whole thing just took too long and was too low-key.

TV, I fear, has blunted our sensibilities. Even if it did do us a favour by bringing down the wretched, irresponsible junior senator from Wisconsin.