John McCain, Joe McCarthy and a Code of Honor

11/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward the sad end of this presidential campaign? It is the shade of the late Joseph R. McCarthy, who bequeathed his name to an "ism" John McCain has clumsily exhumed. McCarthyism asserted that if you ever met a Communist, you must be a Communist. Updated version: if you ever met a terrorist, you must be a terrorist.

The essence of McCarthyism was guilt by association. Joe McCarthy would happily chattered about whether, and therefore how often, William Ayers would "pal around" with Barack Obama.

On February 9, 1950, at the zenith of American anxiety about a newly nuclear Soviet Union and with the U.S. vulnerable to extremism, the Republican senator from Wisconsin went to Wheeling, West Virginia for, alas, a Lincoln Day speech. "I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State (Dean Acheson) as being members of the Communist Party," he said, describing "a spy ring."

Today, amid economic trauma which he does not seem to understand, McCain has conjured up the Stygian gloom of ultraconservatism's darkest hour. McCarthy never revealed any names, but for four years, the Right made him a hero, admiring how he intimidated witnesses, scoffed at civil liberties, sneered at the Fifth Amendment and trashed the patriotism of anyone who disagreed with his methods.

His reckless ride ended on June 9, 1954, during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings. The pivotal moment evokes McCain's revival of guilt by association. McCarthy interrupted Joseph N. Welch, a Boston lawyer representing the U.S. Army, which McCarthy had accused of coddling Bolsheviks. The senator announced to the Senate committee and the television audience that Welch "has in his law firm a young man named Fisher . . . . who has been for a number of years a member of an organization which was named, oh, years and years ago, as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party, an organization which always swings to the defense of anyone who dares to expose Communists."

The episode summed up McCarthyism and hastened its end. "Little did I dream you could be so reckless and cruel as to do an injury to that lad," Welch said, in quiet, measured outrage. "He shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me."

As McCarthy interrupted Welch, the lawyer's New England voice rose slightly. The dialogue transfixed a nation:
Welch: Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
McCarthy: I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch. But I may say, Mr. Chairman, on a point of personal privilege, and I would like to finish it--
Welch:Senator, I think it hurts you, too, sir.
McCarthy: I would like to finish this.
Welch: Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this with you further. You have sat within six feet of me, and could have asked me about Fred Fisher. Now you have brought it out. If there is a God in heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further. I will not ask Mr. (Roy) Cohn any more questions. You, Mr. Chairman, may, if you will, call the next witness.

The hearing room burst into applause. The confrontation unmasked the coward inside every bully. It also revealed the importance of a widely shared code of honor of face-to-face and man-to-man. In 1954, McCarthy violated the same code of honor that McCain has violated in 2008. If William Ayers is so important, why not ask Obama about him directly in a televised debate? As Joe Biden said in Missouri Thursday, "In my neighborhood, when you've got something to say to a guy, you look him in the eye and you say it to him."

In 1954, McCarthy was finished. The Senate condemned him on December 2 for behavior "contrary to senatorial traditions." In 1957, the senator died of a liver ailment at 48. President Eisenhower, whom McCarthy suggested was soft on Communism, told his cabinet that the movement that so convulsed the country was now "McCarthywasm." So it was until this week.