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Opinion: Exhuming McCarthy

The other night I watched a video of a portion of the Army/McCarthy hearings from the 1950s. Most of you will probably remember the part I’m referring to. Sen. Joe McCarthy was questioning Joseph Welch, who was representing the Army. It was televised, and was the first time Americans got their first good look at “Tailgunner Joe” in action.

McCarthy, as usual, was alleging communist involvement in all areas of the government, and he brought up a young associate of Welch named Fred Fisher, who had, in his youth, belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, which at the time was named as a communist group.

Fisher was not at the hearing to defend himself. In fact, Welch was aware of the young lawyers involvement, as he had informed him prior to the start of the hearings. Fisher was picked to be a junior counsel to Welch, who suggested he drop out so McCarthy wouldn’t have any reason to drag his name through the mud on national television.

It happened anyway, and Welch had enough. He delivered to McCarthy a short rebuttal that was devastating, and contributed in large part to McCarthy’s downfall.

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad,” Welch said.

McCarthy, undeterred, kept attacking Fisher. Welch finally dropped the hammer.

“Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild. 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?” thundered Welch, over applause from the gallery.

That’s a good question that applies to this day. I ask it now of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart, the NAACP, President Obama and, indeed, the rest of us. Have we no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have we left no sense of decency?

Shirley Sherrod, formerly with the Department of Agriculture, deserves an answer to that question. Her comments regarding not helping a white farmer 24 years ago were twisted and misrepresented by Breitbart, in response to an NAACP resolution regarding racism in the Tea Party movement. That deliberate misrepresentation led to her firing by the USDA and condemnation by the NAACP.

Who cares that Sherrod was telling a story of her own shortcomings, and how she overcame them?

It would be too easy to lay the blame for this solely on Breitbart, a man who abandoned any professional responsibility to truth a long time ago, a man who is only interested in doing as much damage as possible. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to care about the damage done to Sherrod, that he, in part, is responsible for. No. Breitbart is the start of the problem, not the entirety of it.

The problem, in truth, is the thoughtless and careless rush to judgment without considering the rest of the video. Vilsack didn’t care. Obama didn’t care. The NAACP didn’t care, and it was their video. They threw her under the bus. Thus far , only the NAACP has been the only one to admit they were wrong, and apologized.

Too little, too late.

Vilsack, in the kind of cold, bloodless language favored by bureaucrats, won’t even come close to admitting fault.

“I am, of course, willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts to ensure to the American people we are providing services in a fair and equitable manner,” Vilsack said.

Translation – I screwed up, but can’t admit it. However, I am willing to consider any and all options for covering my own posterior while Sherrod swings in the wind.

Obama wasn’t exactly helpful, given that the White House asked Sherrod to pull over on the highway so she could be fired and not cause a wreck.

Breitbart? Forget it. He was on Fox News saying none of this was about Sherrod. He was after the NAACP. Let’s give him the Joe McCarthy Memorial Award for Reckless Cruelty, then show him the door.

Then, of course, there’s us. I’m not holding out much hope here. We created this zero-accountablity, maximum damage, knee-jerk response cycle. Nobody, and I mean nobody, took the time to consider the damage that could have been done to a person’s name and reputation, and all of these people – Breitbart, Vilsack, Obama, the NAACP – simply gave us what they thought we would want. It’s not like we’ve gone out of our way to disabuse them of this preconception.

Have we left no sense of decency? At long last, have we left no sense of decency?

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