There are few Senatorial chapters more infamous than Joe McCarthy's months-long screed against the purported communists infiltrating the American government during the 1950s. The man's grating, acidic line of questions and insinuations have long stood as the apogee of paranoia within Washington.
Indeed, McCarthy's purported search for the closet communists have set the lowest bar for Senatorial decorum, and the man has, rightly, been lambasted ever since. His actions spawned rebuke from all sides. After Joseph Welch's timeless reproach -- "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" -- the questioning, and McCarthy's political career, shriveled. McCarthyism -- the ignorance, the condescension -- has been largely avoided in the seven decades since.
Fortunately, Texas Senator Ted Cruz is here to make sure that McCarthy's memory carries forward to another political generation. And, thanks to Bill Nelson, the senior senator from Florida, we can be assured that Welch won't remain the lone individual willing to castigate those without standing, and without decency.
For those who've not followed, Cruz has spent the last week channeling the ghost of McCarthy, blasting baseless accusations at Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator and President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense. The freshman senator seems intent on wringing some sort of Islamist bent from Hagel, parsing verbs and phrases and looking, exegetically, at every single interview and financial source the former senator has ever crossed.
It's been, indeed, a show. Cruz's grandstanding -- coming in front of a man in receipt of two Purple Hearts -- has provided wonderful political theater, and has prolonged what was once a fait accompli. His requests have been, as Armed Services Committee Chair Sen. Carl Levin said, "unprecedented."
And until yesterday, they've been unencumbered, and unchecked. Granted a certain amount of room through his recent election, Cruz had paired platform and hubris into a run of conceit unparalleled since, well, McCarthy.
But Tuesday saw a breaking point. As Levin called for a vote -- such discussion on Hagel's patriotism could only run so long -- Sen. Nelson took a moment to touch on a topic festering since last week:
"Mr Chairman, Sen. Cruz has stated his opinion, which he's entitled to," Nelson began. "But I want to put on the record that this Senator feels that Sen. Cruz has gone over the line. He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee in your conclusions, which you're entitled to come to, about him, in essence, being cozy with Iran."
Turning to Cruz, Nelson continued: "And you have also stated your opinion that you don't think that he has been truthful with this committee. Those are two fairly strong statements." In the midst of Nelson's speech -- which ran nearly three minutes, and saw the senior senator's emotions remain more muted than Welch's -- the camera panned to Cruz, still, sitting. The senator, but a handful of weeks into his new Congressional career, remained motionless in the face of the most public reproach the Senate has seen in years.
"I couldn't help but, having had the privilege of serving on this committee for a while, and seeing the two former chairmen on either side of the nominee," Nelson said. "I looked at the former Republican chairman John Warner's face as some of the questions were asked as he visibly winced. There's a certain degree of comity and civility that this committee has always been known for, and clearly in the sharpness of difference of opinion, to question in essence whether somebody is a fellow traveler with another country, I think is taking it too far.
"And I would encourage this committee to take the role model of its former chairman Sen. McCain, who can get into it hot and heavy, but at the end of the day, he's going to respect the other person's motives."
(At this point, McCain, seemingly sharing no empathy with Cruz, burst into a cheeseball grin, taking the compliment.)
Nelson, satisfied with his verbal pugilism, closed simply, redirecting his chiding away from Cruz and back toward the group: "I would implore the committee to consider that."
Cruz, suffice it to say, had never seen such public rebuke. Nor, it seems, had any sitting senator since McCarthy. And since Cruz's line of coarse and unprecedented questioning had already drawn parallels with McCarthy over the past week, it was only right that the historic parallel played out.
Nelson's public rebuke may not have the lasting effect of Welch's lines on decency, but both the speech -- and the successful passage of Hagel's nomination -- should silence Cruz's search for the nation's hidden Islamists.
However, whether such silence remains permanent, a la McCarthy, or drags forward (so long as B. Hussein Obama occupies the White House, Cruz will find an audience for his hackneyed conspiracies) remains to be seen. But, fortunately, we can be assured that wherever the ghost of McCarthy rises, so will that of Welch. And whenever Cruz sullies his status in the future -- which he is all but guaranteed to do -- this clip will, and should, be repeated.
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