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Have you no sense of decency, sir?

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I never thought it possible that one day it would come to pass that each time I watched and listened to a presidential primary candidate that I would feel I needed to take a hot shower to get the stink off me.

I never thought the day would dawn when looking at Catholic bishops and other so-called Christian clergy literally made my skin crawl and my stomach flip.

I never thought it remotely possible that I could hold so many Congressmen, governors, and state legislators in complete contempt, or that, they could make me seriously consider flight to another country.

At this time in our history when Republican politicians, clergy, and right wing pundits feel they have license to say the most outrageous lies and distortions without being held to normal standards of truth, restraint, and certainly common decency, I cannot help but think about another time -- another black night in our history -- known as the McCarthy Era.

And I would suggest to everyone that America would do well to remember that terrible time in history but just as well to also remember one of the Era's few remarkable heroes, Joseph Welch.

Welch was a partner in the prestigious law firm of Hale and Dorr and served as head counsel for the United States Army while the Army was under investigation by Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for Communist Activities. McCarthy's public investigation of the Army is now famously remembered as the Army-McCarthy Hearings. On June 9, 1954, the 30th day of the Army-McCarthy Hearings, McCarthy publicly accused Fred Fisher, a junior attorney in Welch's law firm, of associating with the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) when he was in law school. This was an explosive accusation in the red-baiting heyday of McCarthyism; this single accusation, which seems almost benign today, had the power to totally and completely destroy the young attorney's future --and Joseph Welch knew it.

McCarthy, as drunk with power as he often was with alcohol, was a contemptible man of unbridled hubris and reckless disregard for the lives of others. It's easy to look at him today and wonder whether there aren't more than a few people modeling their public careers after him. Through cunning and brains, but no integrity, McCarthy became one of the most powerful men in America in the early 1950's and at the time of the Army-McCarthy Hearings he was completely out of control. It was a time, very much like now, when fear mongering and hateful speech were the norm and the nation appeared to be in a shark feeding frenzy attacking itself from within. Few dared to show their contempt for McCarthy as openly as Welch and what Welch was about to say to McCarthy now stands in history as a moment of great moral courage.

Several months earlier, on March 9th, Edward R. Murrow and his CBS news team produced a half-hour See It Now special entitled "A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy." Murrow used excerpts from McCarthy's own speeches to criticize McCarthy and expose his lies and contradictions. CBS, in a move that foreshadowed the cowardice of commercial television, forced Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly to pay for their own newspaper advertisements for the program; they were also not allowed to use the CBS logo. CBS was quite obviously afraid to tackle McCarthy. Nevertheless, Murrow's broadcast aired and it certainly contributed to the beginning of a nationwide backlash against McCarthy. CBS received thousands of letters, telegrams, and phone calls that ran 15:1 in favor of Murrow's broadcast.

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It was Joseph Welch, however, who threw the punch from which McCarthy never recovered. McCarthy's bold and reckless accusation about Fisher on that day in June stunned and infuriated Welch. Welch fully understood that McCarthy had callously thrown Fisher under the tanks of McCarthy's artfully contrived juggernaut. Welch dismissed Fisher's association with the NLG as a youthful indiscretion but didn't stop there; Welch turned on McCarthy for naming the young lawyer before a national television audience without prior warning or previous agreement to do so.

Here are Welch's scathing words:

" 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. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale and Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think that I am a gentle man but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me."

When McCarthy tried to renew his attack, Welch interrupted him:

" 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?"

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McCarthy tried to ask Welch another question about Fisher, and Welch cut him off:

" Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you. You have sat within six feet of me and could ask-- could have asked me about Fred Fisher. You have seen fit to bring it out. And if there is a God in Heaven it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further.... You, Mr. Chairman, may, if you will, call the next witness."

The gallery erupted in applause.

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Maureen Gill is an educator, author, blogger, and public speaker known for her insightful historical analyses, biting political commentaries and riveting fiction. Maureen is an OpEd columnist at and York County Journal Tribune in (more...)

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