Do Senator Joe McCarthy and Governor George Wallace really add up to Senator Ted Cruz? That’s been my knee-jerk reaction. Watching Ted Cruz engage in his demagogic shenanigans over The Affordable Care Act and the Tea Party’s government shutdown, images of McCarthy and Wallace kept coming to mind. Yet, after looking into the history of both men — the infamous ‘50s Red baiter and ‘60s race baiter – I’ve come to the conclusion that my impulsive equation adds up. Unfortunately.
Unfortunately for public discourse, our political process, the American economy and working people.
And ultimately, perhaps most unfortunately for the Republican Party…
Let’s take a look back at Joe and George and see what their political careers tell us about Ted – and the prospects for the future of Senator Cruz and the Grand Old Party he’s driving hard right into the ditch.
Joe McCarthy served as a Republican Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death from acute hepatitis – aggravated by his alcoholism — in 1957. Like Ted Cruz, McCarthy was a junior Senator who latched onto a hot button issue and quickly rode it to prominence. Less than three years after taking his back bench in the Senate, “Tail Gunner Joe” was the face of his party — and his reckless, bullying, blacklisting anti-Communist crusade gave birth to a noun that still casts a dark shadow over American politics to this day. “McCarthyism”
It’s important to note that Senator Joe McCarthy was, first and foremost, a liar. He lied early and often.
To begin with, McCarthy lied about his war record. Despite the clearly recorded fact that, as a sitting judge at the time of his enlistment, he received an automatic commission as a lieutenant in the intelligence service, McCarthy liked to claim that he enlisted as a buck private.
McCarthy’s twelve combat missions as a gunner-observer earned him his nickname, “Tail-Gunner Joe,” but he later claimed 32 missions in order to qualify for the Distinguished Flying Cross, which he was awarded in 1952. This was also based on a lie. McCarthy claimed his letter of commendation had been signed by his commanding officer and countersigned by Admiral Nimitz. But, alas, McCarthy wrote that letter of commendation himself: a relatively easy subterfuge for an unscrupulous intelligence officer like himself.
McCarthy’s willingness to lie boldly and baldly made him nationally famous in 1950 — when he asserted in a thunderous speech that he had a list of “members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring” who worked in the State Department. He was never able to prove his sensational charge.
Not being in possession of the facts didn’t stop McCarthy from making more incendiary accusations. Not only had Communists infiltrated the State Department, he warned, there were Commies inside the Truman administration, the Voice of America, Hollywood — and even the U.S. Army.
The McCarthy witch-hunts were on. Armed with the kind of faux populist righteousness and fanatical zeal that animates so many Tea Party advocates, McCarthy used the harsh spotlight of his Senate hearings (and behind-the-scenes strong-arming) to hound those he deemed to be Communists, communist sympathizers, disloyal Americans and – gasp! – homosexuals inside and outside of government.
McCarthy’s scorched Earth political tactics made him a fearsome, polarizing household name – but his hubris and recklessness kept him at arm’s length from most of his senior GOP colleagues, especially Truman’s successor, President Eisenhower, who considered Tail Gunner Joe’s demagoguery reprehensible.
However — and today’s Republican leaders should take note vis a vis Ted Cruz – Ike had a chance to torpedo McCarthy’s rising star, but failed to do it. Well aware of McCarthy’s base of support inside the GOP, Eisenhower bowed to the demands of electoral politics during the Presidential election of 1952, and tempered his disdain for the blustering, bullying junior Senator from the dairy state. The peerless soldier who, as the Supreme Allied Commander, conquered North Africa, liberated Sicily, and invaded Fortress Europe to defeat the Nazi horde hedged his bets as a Presidential candidate in ’52 to avoid a political confrontation with a pompous, prevaricating poltroon who hadn’t even served one term in the Senate.
Ike regretted his lack of political courage at that pivotal moment for the rest of his life. Today’s Republican leaders may well look back at this moment in political time with the same stinging regret.
It took another Joe to shoot down Tail Gunner Joe. On June 9, 1954, during the Army–McCarthy hearings, the Army’s lawyer, Joseph Welch, finally fired a shot below McCarthy’s waterline and sent him sinking to the bottom.
Before a nationwide television audience, Welch finally said what today’s GOP leaders should be saying to Ted Cruz: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Not long after that principled stand by one honest, courageous man, McCarthy’s support and popularity evaporated — and on December 2, 1954, the Senate voted to censure Senator McCarthy by a vote of 67 to 22: one of the few senators ever to be disciplined in this fashion. He died less than three years later at the age of 48 — a man whose name will live in infamy.
Sadly, I fear there are many Ted Cruz fans in the Tea Party who still look upon Joe McCarthy as an American hero.
And what about the notorious segregationist, George Wallace? How does his tragic political career relate to Ted Cruz?
Can anyone say “Third Party”?
George Wallace became Alabama’s longest-serving Governor, spending 16 years in that office largely because he was an unabashed, belligerent champion of state’s rights, white supremacy and segregation.
Can anyone say “Tea Party”?
Wallace took the oath of office as Alabama’s governor on January 14, 1963, standing on the exact spot where, nearly 102 years before, Jeff Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy. That same year, in an attempt to keep black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling at the University of Alabama, George Wallace took his famous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” Wallace, of course, lost that fight before the year was out. His was a futile stand against progress, against history, against humanity. It was destined to fail – but it won Wallace a fervent following among Southern racists and those who hated the Federal government. (Wallace would have been a Tea Party god.)
Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, populist economic policy and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation kept much of the South in the Democrat’s corner. (The GOP was considered the party of Big Business.) After signing the Civil Rights Act in ‘64, President Lyndon Johnson – himself a Deep South Democrat — confessed, “We have lost the South for a generation.”
Johnson’s progressive Democratic Party certainly lost George Wallace.
Though, at first Wallace challenged the Democrats from within the party. In the Democratic Presidential primary season of 1964, Wallace campaigned on his opposition on integration and a tough approach to crime and did surprisingly well in Maryland, Indiana and Wisconsin (the home of Joe McCarthy). Johnson ultimately retained the Presidency in a landslide – and Wallace took that as his cue to split from the Democrats and run the next time of a Third Party ticket.
Are you studying your history, GOP?
Wallace ran for President in 1968 as the candidate of The American Independent Party. His platform was a mix of populism and racism. He ran on ending federal efforts at desegregation, yet he also advocated generous increases for beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare. If the Vietnam War wasn’t winnable within 90 days of his taking office, he pledged an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. An isolationist in the Rand Paul mode, Wallace asserted that foreign aid was money “poured down a rat hole”. Wallace’s appeal in the South and to blue-collar workers in the industrial North drew votes from the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey in northern states like Ohio, New Jersey and Michigan.
Wallace received the support of extremist groups like the White Citizens’ Councils. While Wallace didn’t openly seek their support, he didn’t refuse it. (Have either Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin denounced the man who waved the Confederate battle flag in front of the White House?)
Wallace carried five Southern states in ’68 and won almost ten million popular votes — and 46 electoral votes. And while the loss of those votes weren’t the margin of Humphrey’s landslide loss to Richard Nixon, it can be argued that Wallace’s third party run and his split from the Democrats exacerbated the fatal fissure in the party that Johnson has prophesied when he signed the Voting Rights Act four years earlier.
According to Wikipedia: “In Wallace’s 1998 obituary, The Huntsville Times political editor John Anderson summarized the impact from the 1968 campaign: ‘His startling appeal to millions of alienated white voters was not lost on Richard Nixon and other GOP strategists. First Nixon, then Ronald Reagan, and finally George Herbert Walker Bush successfully adopted toned-down versions of Wallace’s anti-busing, anti-federal government platform to pry low and middle-income whites from the Democratic New Deal coalition.’ Dan Carter, a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta added: ‘George Wallace laid the foundation for the dominance of the Republican Party in American society through the manipulation of racial and social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the master teacher, and Richard Nixon and the Republican leadership that followed were his students.’”
Since the end of World War Two, the Republican Party has pursued (or allowed elements of their party to pursue) the same toxic racist, anti-government base that McCarthy and Wallace courted. The GOP has used hot button social wedge issues like war, abortion, gay marriage and gun control to keep blue-collar working class voters – who would actually be helped by the Democratic Party’s economic policies – in the Republican Party’s big tent.
The problem for the GOP now is that their big tent may not be big enough for Ted Cruz and his Tea Party zealots.
The current self-inflicted government shutdown and debt limit crises are an historic moment of truth for the Republicans. Either Ted will crash and burn like Joe McCarthy, taking the Republican Party’s reputation down with him. Or Ted will, like George Wallace, split the GOP and take his Tea Party acolytes with him. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Time marches on – and so does social progress. There are only so many racist, anti-government, neo-Confederate dead-enders left.
Does John Boehner understand that?