On Monday, billionaire investor Warren Buffett stood in Omaha, with Hillary Clinton looking on, and slapped the GOP nominee with one of the most famous sentences in American history: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
It was far from the first time we’ve been reminded of those legendary words over the past several days:
• “He has no decency. He has a dark heart.” – Khizr Khan after Trump attacked him over his damning speech at the Democratic National Convention. Khan and his wife, Ghazala, are the Pakistani-American parents of an Army captain killed in the Iraq War.
• “Joe McCarthy was brought down by attacks on his decency. Trump will lose the same way.” – headline on Washington Post commentary.
• “‘Have You No Sense of Decency, Mr. Trump?’” – headline on Politico story.
The historic words belong to an attorney named Joseph Welch. He fired them at Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, the infamous hunter of alleged leftists in government, at a congressional hearing in 1954. As McCarthy berated him over the supposed Communist sympathies of a colleague, Welch shot back: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Many of us have heard about that moment, but we may not know the full backstory of blacklists, abuse of power and a bully’s stunning downfall. For insight, I turned to Ellen Schrecker, professor of American history at Yeshiva University and author of several books about McCarthyism, including 1998’s Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America.
Q: What’s the context for Joseph Welch’s comments at the Army-McCarthy hearings? And what role is played by McCarthy’s colleague, the soon-to-be-famous attorney Roy Cohn?
Welch knows that McCarthy knows about his young colleague Fred Fisher. Although he’s not a Communist, Fisher had belonged to a Communist-linked lawyer group in his youth.
Welch therefore keeps Fisher from his team during the Fisher hearings. He has an implicit deal with Cohn that the subject would not come up.
McCarthy breaks the implicit agreement. Welch's "Have you no decency, sir?" comment had been prepared in advance, just in case. And he uses it to great effect.
Q: What is the status of McCarthy’s witch hunt at this time?
It is important to realize that the witch hunt had been going on for four years, and many Americans were tiring of it. There was a sense that it had gotten out of hand, and things like Edward R. Murrow's shows about innocent victims of the witch hunt were having an impact.
Also the Korean War is over, Stalin is dead and the Cold War isn’t quite as scary as it had been, say, 3 or 4 years before. And liberals are beginning to fight back.
Q: How was McCarthy himself faring in the public eye?
McCarthy had been slipping even before the Welch moment. The key to McCarthy's rise and fall – besides his personal aberrations – was the support of the GOP and then its withdrawal when the president finally turned against him.
Until the hearings, the Republican leadership, including President Eisenhower, had been reluctant to take him on. But when McCarthy attacks the Army and accuses a highly respected general, Eisenhower finally takes off the gloves and goes after McCarthy. Not directly, but through the hearings.
The hearings batter McCarthy because he comes across as a mean and unpleasant guy, interrupting witnesses, yelling "point of order" all the time and generally presenting a rather negative image.
When McCarthy attacks Fred Fisher, he is already an unsympathetic figure. Welch, on the other hand, looks and acts like a straightforward, country lawyer. Which, of course, he was not.
Q: Some top members of the Republican Party are trying to avoid talking about Trump or actively opposing him. How did Republicans of that time deal with McCarthy, one of their own?
McCarthy had been a valuable asset to the regular Republican Party in 1950 when it was facing a Democratic president and Congress. Its leaders welcomed anything that its members could do to damage the Truman Administration.
But although the witch hunt didn't let up entirely in 1953, it’s no longer invaluable for the Republicans, who are now in control of the White House and Congress.
Q: What about the Democrats of that time? How do they handle McCarthy?
The Democrats did oppose him at the start. They understood he was trying to undermine the Truman administration. But they pulled back because he intervened in several congressional races in 1950, and the people he opposed lost.
Though there were other reasons for those losses, the mainstream politicians feared McCarthy's supposed power with the voters. They did not want to be seen as "soft on Communism." In addition, McCarthy is an Irish Catholic and popular among other Irish Catholics who are part of the Democratic base.
Q: How did Republicans deal with McCarthy after the hearings? And what happened to him?
McCarthy, a loose cannon, is a useful weapon at one point. Then he’s dropped when he veers out of control. McCarthy is an alcoholic and dies of it less than three years after the hearings.
Q: Many observers have commented on the similarities between the movements that produced McCarthy and Trump. On the other side, how are they different?
The big difference may be that Trump is clearly a product of some very deep and real dissatisfactions of the white, male, working-class base within the Republican Party.
The people who supported McCarthy had none of those resentments. In fact, the 1950s were good economically for the white working class. As many historians have discovered, the Republican Party leaders promoted McCarthy, not the base.
Q: Attorney Roy Cohn, considered to be a McCarthy henchman, would go on to become a mentor to – of all people – a young developer named Donald Trump. Should we make anything of that connection?
The Roy Cohn connection is serendipitous – or perhaps not. It speaks to the sleaze factor that both Trump and McCarthy shared. Cohn, in his way, was as out of control as McCarthy and Trump, but much, much smarter.
Q: What connections do you see between Trump and McCarthy?
Both men are the products of some pretty vicious Republican politics.
In the 1950s, the GOP leaders wanted to roll back the New Deal economic reforms, but the American voters still supported them. So the GOP turned to anti-communism as its main message to voters.
Now, the Republican party is pushing an anti-immigrant agenda because, like the party in the 1950s, its real economic agenda isn't a very good sell these days.
Since Trump is so aberrant and out-of-control, the Republicans may well self-destruct in November. On the other hand, a Trump victory with a Republican Congress facilitating who-knows-what craziness is utterly terrifying. McCarthy was awful, but never so scary.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is a board member and immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.