"Good Night, and Good Luck" - Joe McCarthy
October 18, 2005
By Bernard Weiner, The
I have a dream, I ask myself: "Why this dream now? What is happening
in my life at this moment that would engender these particular images?"
The same question has to be asked about "Good Night, and Good Luck,"
George Clooney's powerful docudrama about the McCarthy era of the
1950s: "Why make this film now? Is there something happening
in our society, our media, our politics that would make audiences
resonate with a low-budget film, shot in black-and-white, about
the 1950s in America?"
It seems clear that director Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov
see a direct contemporary parallel with the anti-communist political
witch-hunting of the 1950s, the unwillingness of most of the media
to take on the bullyboy of that era. In our own time, an arrogant,
bullying Administration is ruining the country, running roughshod
over the Constitution, and questioning the patriotism of any who
oppose them, much as Senator Joe McCarthy did with anyone who raised
questions about his methods of hunting down suspected communists.
These days, of course, one substitutes "terrorists" for "communists."
Think I'm exaggerating? How about the White House orchestrating
a smear of Ambassador Joseph Wilson because he publicly questioned
Bush's twisted evidence for going to war in Iraq - and then, as
a special revenge-bonus, key Administration officials outed Wilson's
wife, Valerie Plame, as a covert CIA officer? (Indictments in this
case, and the coverup that followed, are expected within the next
week or two.)
How about then-Attorney General John Ashcroft telling Congress
that those who ask pointed questions about the legalities of the
Administration's "war on terrorism" give aid and comfort to "the
enemy"? (Here's Ashcroft's exact quote: "To those who scare peace-loving
people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics
only aid terrorists - for they erode our national unity and diminish
our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies...")
How about then-Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warning "all
Americans that they need to watch what they say" about the Administration's
anti-terrorism policies, and the comments of Administration hatchetmen
in the press, such as Ann Coulter, calling anti-Bush liberals "traitors"
who deserve to be shot?
How about White House Press Secretary Scott McLellan questioning
the patriotism of veteran correspondent Helen Thomas just a few
days ago because she "expressed her concerns" about the Bush Administration's
handling of the Iraq War? Here's the official transcript of the
key exchange, including ABC's Terry Moran nailing McClellan. Thomas
has asked several questions about Bush's policies in Iraq:
McCLELLAN: Well, Helen, the President recognizes that
we are engaged in a global war on terrorism. And when you're
engaged in a war, it's not always pleasant, and it's certainly
a last resort. But when you engage in a war, you take the fight
to the enemy, you go on the offense. And that's exactly what
we are doing. We are fighting them there so that we don't have
to fight them here. September 11th taught us -
THOMAS: It has nothing to do with - Iraq had nothing
to do with 9/11.
McCLELLAN: Well, you have a very different view of the
war on terrorism, and I'm sure you're opposed to the broader
war on terrorism. The President recognizes this requires a comprehensive
strategy, and that this is a broad war, that it is not a law
enforcement matter. Terry.
TERRY MORAN: On what basis do you say Helen is opposed
to the broader war on terrorism?
McCLELLAN: Well, she certainly expressed her concerns
about Afghanistan and Iraq and going into those two countries.
I think I can go back and pull up her comments over the course
of the past couple of years.
MORAN: And speak for her, which is odd.
McCLELLAN: No, I said she may be, because certainly
if you look at her comments over the course of the past couple
of years, she's expressed her concerns -
THOMAS: I'm opposed to preemptive war, unprovoked preemptive
MR. McCLELLAN: - she's expressed her concerns.
THE ROTTEN ODOR FROM THE TOP
Well, you get the idea. Criticize the Administration, have your
ideas distorted, your reputation smeared, your patriotism questioned
- with the consequences, of course, that your job, and perhaps even
your life, could be placed in jeopardy. (Many of Plame's contacts,
for example, ones that she had built up over a decade as a covert
CIA agent working in the field of weapons of mass destruction, were
compromised and may well have been eliminated in their home countries.)
What emanates from the top works its stink down to the grassroots.
There are instances of folks being refused passage on airplanes
because a group with which they're associated is critical of the
Bush Administration, or they're wearing anti-Bush buttons or T-shirts.
And there are all those citizens who are bounced from Bush rallies,
supposedly open to the public, because they don't look right or
are known to be Democrats. Or, a student is kicked out of school
for wearing an anti-Bush logo on his T. Or, one of my favorites,
Bush telling a citizen on a rope line who asked him a pointed question,
"Why should I care what you think?"
We pay Bush's salary but the only people he wants to hear from
are large GOP donors and the criminally-liable lackies and toadies
down there in the Bush Bunker with him - or, as we learned last
week, from carefully-scripted military officers in Iraq (not ordinary
soldiers) feeding back to him the war talking-points they'd rehearsed
with a Pentagon public-relations specialist. Oh, by the way, one
of those supposed "combat troops" praising Bush's policy, the one
sitting in the front row at the far left, turns out to be a Pentagon
Despite the Bush Administration buying off name journalists to
spout its propaganda message (the hiring of talk-show host Armstrong
Williams finally is being investigated as a possible crime); despite
manufacturing its own propaganda "news reports" and then sending
them to TV stations around the country as real journalism; despite
the staged photo-ops in New Orleans and Iraq, on sets immediately
dismantled after the shoot; despite the GOP's control of the House
and the Senate and most of the corporate media - despite all that,
Bush's ratings continue to plummet, to the lowest point of his tenure
in office, down in the 30s, even sliding fast among Republicans.
Finally, the veils have come off the public vision, and they are
beginning to see Bush & Co. for what it is.
BEWARE OF CORNERED, WOUNDED BEASTS
On the one hand, that's good news for those of us dedicated to
a restoration of Constitutional rule, and to bringing the troops
home alive from Iraq ASAP. On the other hand, I must confess I'm
really nervous. The Bush Bunker crew right now are desperate, on
the ropes, and have painted themselves into a felonious corner of
their own devising. Beware wounded beasts; when they feel trapped,
they are liable to strike out in a desperate attempt at survival.
As the Plamegate indictments approach; as Bush's popularity ratings
continue to fall precipitously; as the situation in Iraq continues
to deteriorate, referendum or no referendum; as the true nature
of Bush's unfeeling ideology toward ordinary people became even
more clear in the wake of the Katrina disaster; as the corruption
and corporate thievery proceeds apace - as all these negatives continue
to build pressure in the White House, one can anticipate a wide
variety of major distractions and violent initiatives, both foreign
What might some of those be? In one effort to get the Plamegate
indictments off the front page, we can anticipate that Saddam Hussein's
show-trial in Iraq will dominate the front pages and TV-news broadcasts
to tell us yet again what a monster dictator this guy was, thus
leaving precious little space or airtime available for the White
House's ethical and criminal problems. (Let's just stipulate: Saddam
was one of the worst dictators ever, nobody mourns his loss from
power - and now let's get back to the real news.)
In addition, I would not be surprised if the U.S. or Mideast ally
Israel moved to take out Iran's nuclear power plants and research
facilities. A massive bombing, with all the ramifications of such
action in the Muslim world, would do wonders to divert attention.
Likewise, ratcheting up the military pressure on Syria, after the
U.S. recently started up hostilities along, and perhaps even beyond,
the border with Iraq. Or, the Bush Administration may choose once
again to look the other way when a major terrorist incident is about
to happen inside the U.S.
THE IMPEACHMENT SCENARIO
Karl Rove's M.O. always has always been, "when in trouble,
attack." Don't let the opposition even get close to
defining the agenda and parameters of discussion. As Rove himself
is about to be attacked, I would think he might have even more motivation
to pull out all the survival stops and arrange for something drastic
to become Topic #1, rather than permitting the American public to
focus on the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush Administration
before the judicial dock.
And rest assured, the Plamegate indictments will have ramifications
way beyond those charged. Once the perp-walks take place, once those
trials begin - and probably long before as key elements of the case
are leaked - the dirty secrets inside the White House will be revealed;
Republican Senators and House members, anxious to be re-elected,
might well back-pedal away so fast from BushCheneyRoveLibby that
in the rush you'll barely be able to read the impeachment bill they'll
agree to support.
In addition, GOP power-brokers and economic leaders, anxious to
keep the markets stable and their profits predictable, might bow
to the inevitable and their own self-interests and jettison their
support for the Bush Administration, putting their money behind
other, less-tainted politicos.
What would follow impeachment trials - assuming Bush and Cheney
don't do a Nixon and resign first? One would hope that the political
lessons would have been learned by those next in line - be it Hastert
or Stevens or Rice or Rumsfeld. Whoever would take over from Bush
would be reading the 2006 pre-election polls and, realizing that
the Republicans are going to be swept out of power bigtime - to
even try to manipulate the election returns in that kind of landslide
would be counterproductive - might well abandon the imperial adventuring
and corporate looting and advocacy of torture as state policy and
shredding of Constitutional protections, etc. etc. In other words,
there would be some movement toward the middle.
McCARTHYISM IN THE BUSH ERA
Which brings us back to "Good Night, and Good Luck." Something
similar happened to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the '50s: he was riding
as high as any political demagogue could, for years virtually controlling
the government and America's socio-political agenda in his anti-communist
frenzy - ruining the reputations of honorable men and women with
impunity - and then, suddenly, he went too far, was shamed and humiliated
and was isolated by his fellow senators and his powers removed.
He died of alcoholism-related diseases a few years later.
For those unfamiliar with McCarthy and the political/social mayhem
he caused 50 years ago - along with the vigilante movement he spawned
("McCarthyism") - here's a brief primer. Waving what he claimed
were lists of names of alleged communists inside the State Department
and elsewhere in the government, and denouncing citizens left and
right for alleged "communist sympathies," and with few in academia,
the media and government willing to take him on and risk being called
a "pinko" or worse, McCarthy became the locus of malevolent power
in America, dispensing a kind of toxic poison all around the country
that created fear and kept people from fully exercising their rights
as citizens. Keep your mouth shut and your head down - that was
the operating principle in the McCarthy period.
McCarthy's downfall was that he didn't know where to stop, or
when; indeed, he believed he was unstoppable. But after hounding
show-biz personalities and academics and media reporters and lower-level
government employees, McCarthy began attacking the U.S. Army leadership,
including war-hero General George Marshall, at which point former
four-star general Dwight David Eisenhower, now President Eisenhower,
had had enough. The battle was joined, and CBS star newsman Edward
R. Murrow attacked McCarthy frontally and wounded him enough so
that others, including Boston attorney Joseph Welch and McCarthy's
fellow Senators could finish him off.
But you don't get a lot of this important layering-history in
"Good Night, and Good Luck," which prefers to focus almost exclusively
and insularly on the battle between Murrow/CBS and McCarthy. But
McCarthy's arrogant recklessness went far beyond the mass media.
One of my former university teaching colleagues, for example, had
been denounced by a touring McCarthy as a "communist sympathizer"
from the stage of the university where he taught; my colleague (who,
of course, was no pinko sympathizer, just one of the few academics
in the loyalty-oath McCarthy era still courageous enough to ask
questions) lost that job and, even though he located another teaching
position years later, he was emotionally scarred, easily frightened
and very afraid to speak his mind in public. Others suffered similar
harassments even though their only crime was having names similar
to the real suspects. It was a true witch-hunt, with people naming
names willy-nilly - or being forced to publicly denounce their parents
- just to clear themselves.
THE POLITICS BEHIND WITCH-HUNTING
The unspoken assumption in "Good Night, and Good Luck" is that
there may have been a few communists inside and outside the government
that were worth paying serious attention to, but if there were,
laws and procedures were in place for uncovering and dealing with
them; the glory of our country's system is that one can pay attention
to the civil liberties afforded suspects even when going after them
legally. The unspoken assumption in our own time is that there may
be al-Qaida sleeper cells inside the U.S., but, even if that were
true, you don't need to use a sledgehammer to kill some gnats, wrecking
the entire Constitutional house in the process.
McCarthy was encouraged by Republicans in the 1950s to rampage
around looking for supposed Communists - and bullying everyone in
his path - because it would reap the party political advantage in
the post-World War II Cold War hysteria. Republicans today encourage,
or at least acquiesce to, the Bush Administration's incompetent
rampaging in search of "terrorist" suspects, shredding badly the
protections of the Constitution, because it serves their electoral
advantage in a society frightened by the prospect of future terrorist
"Good Night, and Good Luck" - which, in a brilliant stroke, stars
Joseph McCarthy as himself (from newscasts of the time) - is not
a consistently great movie. It barely captures the social sweep
and damage done by McCarthyism outside the CBS newsroom, and in
its desire to glorify the courageous work of CBS newsman Edward
R. Murrow (played brilliantly by David Straithairn) and his colleague
Fred Friendly (Clooney), it overlooks that fact that others took
on McCarthy long before they did. But, despite its flaws, it's a
riveting and socially important film, one we need to ruminate upon
for its messages for our own time and situation - lest we continue
to repeat bad history.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations,
has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with
the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The
Crisis Papers. For comments, write email@example.com.
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