Back in June of 1954, Senator Joseph (“Tailgunner Joe”) McCarthy (R-WI) was called before his own Subcommittee on Investigations to review some charges he’d been making in his anti-Commie witch hunts. McCarthy had been trying to browbeat the Army into according special treatment to one of his former aides, an unwilling draftee named David Schine (whom McCarthy’s current aide Roy Cohn called “a good friend”), and had been bad-mouthing generals and the secretary of defense to try to bully them into admitting they were part of the vast Red conspiracy he imagined pervading America.
At one point, on national TV (the 1st televised hearings in American history), McCarthy tried the same Red-baiting tactics on a young attorney who served as an aide to the Army’s lawyer, the highly respected Boston attorney Joseph Welch. Before McCarthy had gone very far, Welch rebuked him for trying to besmirch the character of the young man: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness.…”
McCarthy tried to continue the bullying tactics which had served him so well up to that point, but Welch cut him off again: "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?"
At this, the gallery spontaneously burst into applause. It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy’s infamous witch hunt. In December of that year, his fellow senators voted 67-22 to censure him for his activities. An object of scorn, McCarthy’s effectiveness was ended. He crawled back into the bottle he was so fond of and died of acute hepatitis in 1957, at the age of 48.
Cohn went on to become an unscrupulous (tho successful) attorney in private practice and a vicious homophobe before it was revealed, shortly before his death (in 1986, at 59, of AIDS), that he himself was a closeted gay man.
Schine, a wealthy, privileged, and good-looking young man at the time of the hearings, got out of the Army and the public eye, became a success in business, married a former Miss Universe from Sweden, and had 6 children. He and his wife both died in 1996 after 40 years of marriage. He never commented publicly on his role in McCarthy’s spectacles.
Which brings us to today.
As you may have heard, a major 4-lane bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis during evening rush hour on Wednesday, August 1. The following morning, our only president, George W. Bush, convened a press conference, ostensibly to discuss the tragedy. He stammered and stumbled thru some awkward comments acknowledging the event, as if it were something he’d read about (or, more likely, been told about) in history class.
He’d just gotten to the part about how the federal government was getting set to ride to the rescue when I found myself groaning and thinking “Oh, no. Not FEMA again! Haven’t those poor people in Minneapolis already suffered enuf?”.
But then I mentally rebuked myself. After all, I thot, the president is not only the leader of the government and the titular leader of his own political party, he’s also the head of state. In that capacity, he serves as a symbol of national unity, much as the queen does for England. And, indeed, it was in that capacity that he had his finest moment as president, when he voiced exactly the right sentiments after the attacks of 9/11.
So I chided myself for thinking ill of the man, expecting that he would make a sincere effort to live up to his self-proclaimed ideal to be a uniter, not a divider, by serving as national spokesperson for the collective sense of shock and grief that we all felt after this sudden and shocking tragedy.
That lasted for just a few seconds before -- quicker than you can say “Jack Robinson” -- he doffed his ”impartial head of state” hat, firmly slapped on his familiar and clearly more comfortable “petty partisan politician” hat, and started harping on how the Democrats in Congress were getting set to take the month of August off (this from a guy who spends more time on vacation, usually at his ranchette in Texas, than any other president in US history) and how they really needed to tend to business, like the transportation budget.
Did you catch the segue there? Bridge goes down, Dems soft on transportation spending?
And, bit firmly between his teeth, he was done with the stammering and mumbling and went resolutely about the mean-spirited, partisan business of bashing the Democrats in Congress.
Now, we’ve known for some time that Bush has no sense of empathy. I watched Lyndon Johnson on TV going thru the tortures of the damned over the mounting death toll in Vietnam. You could see that every casualty weighed on him and that he daily re-evaluated whether he was doing the right thing, whether the benefits were worth the terrible cost of the war that he obviously believed was the right thing for the country to do (even tho he’d inherited it from John F. Kennedy). But it ate at him. He felt all those casualties personally. The chant “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” obviously got to him.
Bush, not so much.
Oh, he says all the right words, but then he gets that little smirk, hunches over, and goes “heh heh” and you realize he’s made no connection at all to the grief and suffering. (Son of wealth and privilege, sheltered, coddled, and cultivated all his life by his daddy and his daddy’s rich buddies, he’s never had to deal with real suffering.) He notoriously has NEVER attended a funeral for any US service people killed as a result of his invasion of Iraq, and hasn’t even bothered to take a quick trip across town to pay homage to the flag-draped caskets that are relentlessly flown back from the war zone. Never. Not once.
He tried to claim that he sympathized with Scooter Libby when he commuted his sentence, but obviously Cheney had told him he had to do it, or Libby might start telling the truth just to get out of jail. So Bush put on his best game face and tried to claim he was doing the humanitarian thing. (This from a guy who, as governor of the STATE of Texas, authorized more executions than any NATION in the world except China and Saudi Arabia, usually after no more than a cursory 5-minute review of a briefing paper his consigliere, Alberto Gonzalez, had put together for him.)
So, no, we’ve come to expect zero empathy from Bush.
But maybe, just maybe, in the face of another national tragedy, he’d be able to work up the same sense of decency he displayed atop the pile of rubble at Ground Zero that fateful week in 2001. Maybe he’d be able to rise above partisan politics just once more in his abysmal and pathetic presidency and truly just focus on the pain, suffering, anxiety, and sense of loss. Maybe he’d just do the decent thing, even if it was only because Cheney (and maybe Laura) told him it was what people expected of him.
He wouldn’t use the occasion of a national tragedy to take political potshots, would he? Even Bush wouldn’t stoop that low. Would he? Would he?
But that would have required some tiny kernel, some actual seed of decency to begin with.
Have you, George W. Bush, at long last, no sense of decency?
Here’s a hint, in the words of your attorney general:
I do not recall.