No one really wants to relive the fifties – those poodle skirts were awful, Dinah Shore was insufferably cheerful, although finally overwhelmed by Bill Haley and then Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and everything was so damned conventional. People were scared too – there were those backyard bomb shelters and maybe communists everywhere. That was the word. These weren’t happy days with the Fonz and Richie – these were the days of Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Watch what you say. Say only the conventional, and denounce any youthful enthusiasms in your past, if you can. Do what is expected of you. Say what is expected of you. Deviations from the norm will end your hopes for anything at all. It’s no wonder America exploded in the sixties. Women burned their bras and young men burned their draft cards. Enough is enough.
Joseph McCarthy went too far of course – exposed as no more than an unthinking bully, drunk half the time. Eisenhower had no use for him, although Nixon had worked to get Alger Hiss and was fine with McCarthy, and Edward R. Murrow drove the final nail into McCarthy’s coffin. You’ve seen the movie about that – it’s mostly true. The man ruined lives, although on Fox News you’ll now and then find Ann Coulter or Michelle Malkin angrily defending Joseph McCarthy, the true hero of the fifties, who was right about everything. There were communists everywhere, you see, and brutal bullying was the right thing to do back then, as it is now. The Fox News hosts generally demur – the American public still remembers the man who had no shame – and few real facts either. No one really wants to relive that. McCarthy cannot be rehabilitated and redeemed. Some things from the fifties are best forgotten – like Silly Putty and Coonskin Caps.
Joseph McCarthy is the loser here, but he just did things wrong. Ronald Reagan did things right, starting his anti-communist thing after World War II, in 1947, when the Screen Actors Guild, his union, was asked to mediate disputes between a few other industry unions. Reagan stepped up and butted heads with Herb Sorrell, the head of the Conference of Studio Unions, a guy who made no bones about his views on workers’ rights, views that to some seemed communist, and probably were just that. Reagan didn’t like the guy and in 1947 the Screen Actors Guild elected Reagan their president, the first of his five consecutive terms. Yes, Ronald Reagan was a union boss, but one who didn’t much care for workers’ rights, and he ended up testifying as a friendly witness before the committee on folks who had the wrong kind of thoughts, after which the Hollywood Ten were off to prison and quite a few other writers and directors were blacklisted, not to work in Hollywood for many decades. It’s a sad story – but Reagan went on to become governor out here and then president. He was the one who carried the fifties forward – Nixon was too dark and strange and self-destructive. Ronald Reagan was the sunny one, and the one who made the fifties real in America again, at least for some. Reagan would take care of any deviations from the norm. Those people would be slapped down, especially union people thinking they had rights. Watch what you say.
Everyone knows it’s been the fifties fighting the sixties ever since. Convention and authority are always pitted against experimentation and inquiry in every society. We just have our own way of framing that – Happy Days versus Woodstock – Reagan versus Jack and Martin and Bobby. Yeah, the framing is stupid – it’s too glib – but it works. After all, Ted Cruz is bringing Joseph McCarthy back. The New Yorker unearthed a three year old speech in which this freshman senator from Texas charged that there were at least a dozen professors at Harvard Law School during his time there in the mid-90s who “would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”
No, really. The item goes on to discuss the issue with Charles Fried, a widely-respected professor at Harvard Law, who was Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General during his second term, by the way. Fried doubts there are twelve members of the Harvard Law faculty who believed in the violent overthrow of the United States government by the Communist Party now or when Cruz was a student from 1992 to 1995. Cruz has responded through his spokesperson Catherine Frazier:
It’s curious that the New Yorker would dredge up a three-year-old speech and call it “news.” Regardless, Senator Cruz’s substantive point was absolutely correct: in the mid-1990s, the Harvard Law School faculty included numerous self-described proponents of “critical legal studies” – a school of thought explicitly derived from Marxism – and they far outnumbered Republicans.
Yes, but that’s not what Cruz said. Cruz didn’t say there are some professors at Harvard who belong to a school of legal thought with a Marxian provenance. He said there were a dozen who “would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.” That’s sedition of course. Is that what he’s talking about? He won’t say. Joseph McCarthy would never say either.
Josh Marshall adds this:
Look, I spent the better part of my twenties in graduate school at one of the more liberal campuses in the country. I know all about professorial armchair radicalism. I was a big mocker of it when I was in grad school. And I probably still would be if I thought it mattered at all or didn’t have a life.
But Cruz didn’t say there were a bunch of radicals at Harvard Law School. And he didn’t say there were a bunch of professors professing a hyper-intellectualized and anemic critical studies variant of Marxism there. He said there were a dozen professors there “who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”
You can’t just run away from those words or massage them out of existence. If I say someone’s a child molester I can’t fall back and say, ‘Hey, I just meant they’re not a good parent. I didn’t mean they’re actually a child molester. That was just hyperbole to drive home the point.’
That’s a very specific and clearly false claim that Cruz made because it was red meat for his audience even though he knew it was not true. It was a lie. That makes Cruz a liar and a smear artist. But then we knew that from his role in the Hagel hearings.
It’s suddenly the fifties again, and yes, Cruz said that Chuck Hagel might have received money from the North Korean government, then backed off – he’s heard nothing about such a thing, but he was only asking, and any responsible senator would ask about such things. That earned Cruz a public rebuke from John McCain and others:
In a body known for comity, Mr. Cruz is taking confrontational Tea Party sensibilities to new heights – or lows, depending on one’s perspective. Wowed conservatives hail him as a hero, but even some Republican colleagues are growing publicly frustrated with a man who has taken the zeal of the prosecutor and applied it to the decorous quarters of the Senate.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said that some of the demands Mr. Cruz made of Mr. Hagel were “out of bounds, quite frankly.” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, issued a public rebuke after Mr. Cruz suggested, with no evidence, that Mr. Hagel had accepted honorariums from North Korea.
“All I can say is that the appropriate way to treat Senator Hagel is to be as tough as you want to be, but don’t be disrespectful or malign his character,” Mr. McCain said in an interview.
Have you no shame, sir? McCain feels about Cruz the same way Eisenhower felt about Joe McCarthy – this man is trouble. He’s trouble because he’s a rock star, as the Austin Statesman explained here:
Six weeks after being sworn in, Ted Cruz returned to Texas a commanding figure, the center of attention in the Senate and the national media, loathed by the Washington establishment and, for that, all the more celebrated by conservatives nationally who found in him a champion both very smart and, it seemed, utterly fearless. He had emerged from his baptism by fire more powerful for it, not only in national conservative circles but, by leveraging his new-found status, perhaps also in the Capitol he had so unsettled.
Salon’s Steve Kornacki assesses the problem:
For Republicans who believe their party’s post-2008 direction has been self-destructive, Cruz’s rapid rise is a troubling development, because it really has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with the outrage he provokes from Democrats and the media. The thorough beating they took at the polls last fall perhaps should have prompted rethinking on the right. But conservatives’ appetite for Cruz shows that the GOP base’s animating spirit still hasn’t changed: Loud, aggressive and reflexive hostility to President Obama, the Democratic Party and any Republican who would dare contemplate compromise is still how “conservatism” is defined.
It’s just that is no longer a useful definition:
What makes Cruz and Cruz-ism a particular problem for his party is the demographic conundrum Republicans now face. Obama’s reelection (and Democrats’ unexpected gains in the Senate) was testament to the rising clout of the “coalition of the ascendant” – African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, women (particularly single women), Millennials. … Cruz’s Cuban-American background by itself won’t improve his or his party’s standing with Hispanics or other minorities. Instead, he’s appealing to the aging, overwhelmingly white core of the Republican base – voters whose grievances against the government in the 1970s and 1980s turned them against the Democratic Party and attracted them to Ronald Reagan and his ideological descendants.
So Cruz is now positioned as a major obstacle to the ideological modernization that the Republican Party is desperately in need of. If his brand of conservatism is treated as the gold standard of purity by the conservative media and conservative activists, Republican leaders will have a hard time moving the party away from its Obama-era orthodoxy.
Forget immigration reform, and doing something about gun violence too. The new hero would not allow such things. The Republican Party is out of step with mainstream opinion – but that doesn’t matter – and Kornacki invokes history too:
In McCarthy’s time, for instance, liberal Republicans from the Northeast loomed large in the party – a key reason why Dwight Eisenhower, who governed as a moderate, managed to beat back the ultra-conservative Robert Taft in 1952. And through the 1980s, Republican presidential candidates regularly contested and won large industrial states.
The political damage that McCarthy did to the party was limited, but not now. Demographics have changed and their appeal has changed correspondingly:
That doesn’t mean the party is doomed, but it does need a reboot – a reboot that’s difficult to envision as long as the party’s base continues to celebrate behavior like Cruz’s.
Good luck with that – or as Edward R. Murrow used to say, good night and good luck. Actually, Mike Tomasky frames this problem the Republicans have a little differently:
They’re like a family in deep denial at the Thanksgiving table. Guys, debating the best way to cook brussels sprouts is of marginal utility. Whether Cousin Ruthie wears her hair this way or that way is not worth dwelling on. The overwhelming fact at hand is that Uncle Ralph is drunk again, and he’s being a belligerent racist homophobic ass again, and he is preventing any civility and progress from taking place – and it’s been this way for four Thanksgivings in a row, and you are intentionally choosing to say nothing about it.
It’s not just Ted Cruz – he’s just the latest in the crowd stuck in the fifties – and in this New Yorker piece mostly about Eric Cantor, Ryan Lizza quotes Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma using the same metaphor just before the Republican House retreat in January:
“It’s a very important time for the conference, and it needs to air some of these things,” he said. “It’s a little like a dysfunctional family right now, where everybody knows old Uncle Joe at the end of the table’s an alcoholic, but nobody wants to say it. And somebody needs to say it. We need to get Joe some help. Come on, he’s ruined too many Christmas parties!”
Ed Kilgore finds this odd:
Whether it’s Uncle Ralph or Uncle Joe we are talking about, the flaw in the Drunk Uncle at the Holiday Table metaphor is that it suggests we’re just talking about a small element of the GOP “family” that’s misbehaving. The problem with the would-be reformers Tomasky is lecturing isn’t that they won’t call out the Class of 2010 or the Tea Party or however you choose to define the loose cannons (though that would be nice). It is that “reformers” have virtually no visible support from Republican elected officials, in sharp contrast to the elected-official-led Democratic “move-to-the-center” initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s.
Cantor as displayed in Lizza’s piece sometimes comes across as this inherently reasonable guy who is grappling with the extremists in the House GOP by alternatively begging them to be nice and then getting in front of their parade as they shout curses at the “establishment” Republicans of which he is ex officio a leading member. But he’s really alternating between fecklessness and opportunism, and he’s no more a friend of would-be “reformers” than Michele Bachmann.
Since the 2012 elections, the Republicans have been divided between those who believe their policies are the problem and those who believe they just need better marketing – between those who believe they need to make better pizza and those who think they just need a more attractive box. Cantor, who is known among his colleagues as someone with strategic intelligence and a knack for political positioning, argues that it’s the box.
Indeed, Lizza’s narrative of the run-up to Cantor’s famously empty AEI speech earlier this month makes his commitment to “reform” look even more ridiculous than ever, particularly when his “real people” posturing is contrasted to the real damage real people are about to suffer in the latest phase of the Republican-engineered Great Phony Fiscal Crisis of the 2010s.
Yeah, it would be very healthy for Republican politicians and opinion-leaders to once and for all show some guts and say publicly what they say privately about the Bachmanns and the Kings and the Goehmerts and the Labradors and the new tyro of the angry right, Ted Cruz. But it’s not the raging ideological extremists at the table who are the real problem; it’s the whole family hitting the same hooch and maintaining a good steady maintenance-drunk day in and day out.
Lizza reports that John Boehner began the January House GOP retreat by leading the solons in reciting that staple of AA meetings, the Serenity Prayer. That may have been his most appropriate act of leadership in years.
Kilgore later adds this:
I propose a litmus test for all those Republicans who say they learned their lesson and want to build a GOP that is free of the rancor and extremism of the recent past. Let’s ask them: what do you think of Ted Cruz? Because if they won’t call this guy out, then they haven’t learned a thing.
Kilgore sounds a lot like Edward R. Murrow:
No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threats of communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.
That was 1954 and this is now, or it’s then, really. Some things never change, although Cruz is certain that George Soros wants to ban golf – which seems to have something to do with our sovereignty being under assault from that obscure United Nations agreement called Agenda 21. You see, that treaty’s sustainable-development guidelines will force Americans to live in “hobbit homes” and “forcibly relocate residents from rural areas into densely populated urban cores.” Golf and George Soros fit in there somewhere. “Sharia law is an enormous problem” in the United States too. None of that came up in the fifties. Fluoridation was the issue back then.
Meanwhile, on the other side:
The beautiful movie star tries to take on Washington by defeating a powerful Republican leader. It’s not a plot line. It’s reality. The actress Ashley Judd is making moves to take on GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
She hasn’t announced yet, but her biggest supporter in Kentucky, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, told ABC News, “I would be surprised if she doesn’t run at this point.”
“My impression is this is something she wants to do, and she is now taking the time to make the contacts she needs to make throughout the state to try and generate commitments of support and in some cases fundraising,” Yarmuth said. “She is certainly acting like a candidate, a potential candidate.”
Yes, Mitch McConnell is that old guy that kind of looks like that cartoon turtle – and he’s fairly boring, and he’s going to face a challenge from his right, someone probably nastier and loopier than Ted Cruz, so Mitch McConnell has been going hard right lately. He wants to keep his Senate seat and the Minority Leader gig. And now he faces this formidable activist from the left – the beautiful movie star, smart as a whip, with her Master in Public Administration degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, just like Bill O’Reilly in fact. Unlike O’Reilly she’s also dead-flat fluent in French, her undergraduate degree. She reads too much. She thinks. She’s articulate and precise. McConnell may never know what hit him, if he makes it past the primary and his state’s version of Ted Cruz.
This is only worth mentioning because Mitch McConnell was born in 1942 – he came of age in the fifties. That’s where he feels at home. Watch what you say. Say only the conventional, and denounce any youthful enthusiasms in your past, if you can. Do what is expected of you. Say what is expected of you. Deviations from the norm will end your hopes for anything at all. He understood what Joe McCarthy was up to, and now understands Ted Cruz and the like. Ashley Judd was born in 1968 – she’s a child of the sixties, literally. All that stuff must seem absurd to her.
We’ve been here before. The fifties are fighting the sixties again, as they always do. We just didn’t need another Joe McCarthy. Some things from the fifties are best forgotten.