In 1952, my mother was a student teacher at the Horace Porter Elementary School in Columbia, Connecticut. She was teaching the children about the Soviet Union. One of her students unhelpfully went home and told her parents my mother was teaching communism. Within 48 hours, she was hauled in front of the president of her college for a dismissal proceeding. Fortunately, a World War II veteran was in the classroom with my mother and was able to assure the president of the college that my mother was teaching about communism, not advocating for it.
McCarthyism cast its most full and most pernicious shadow upon America in the 1950s. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy made a career out of smearing honorable Americans by accusing them of communist sympathies. His targets included Gen. George Marshall, whom Harry Truman called "the greatest living American." But, in the 1950s, with the Red Army in control of more than half of Europe, the 1949 fall of China to the communist forces of Mao-Zedong, and the Korean War, Americans were afraid. McCarthy stoked the fear to beat political opponents, questioning not their strategy for combating communism but implying they were unpatriotic traitors. Many otherwise decent Americans had their reputations trashed before McCarthy was censured by his fellow senators and his name became synonymous with witch-hunter.
In 1988, Lee Atwater, the chief political strategist for George H. W. Bush, introduced America to Willie Horton. A convicted criminal who was let out on a weekend furlough for good behavior in prison, Horton went on a criminal rampage, kidnapping a family and raping a woman. This happened on the watch of Gov. Mike Dukakis, Bush’s opponent in that election. It did not matter that the federal government and most states had nearly identical furlough programs: The image of a black man raping a white woman was searing and helped erase Dukakis’s lead in the polls.
The Will Horton ad was slimy. In the late 1990s, before he died prematurely from brain cancer, Atwater apologized to the American people for introducing racial hatred into politics in such a grotesque way. Still, Hortonism was not McCarthyism. Atwater questioned liberal attitudes towards crime, and stoked racial hatred, but he did not question Dukakis’s patriotism.
In recent weeks, many were expecting the McCain campaign to unleash a Horton-style attack ad, something that would stoke racial fears and try to frighten white voters into voting against Obama. But, they did something worse. Since 9/11, terrorism has replaced communism as the external threat that most frightens Americans. When you say someone "pals around with terrorists" and you refer to Obama using his middle name "Hussein," you are looking for a response in the electorate. Last week, a woman stood up at a McCain rally and said Obama was an Arab. McCain took the microphone and corrected the woman. But that woman had drawn the precise conclusion McCain’s campaign wanted her to draw: Obama is dangerous, he is not one of us, he is unpatriotic.
McCain is visibly uncomfortable in such situations. He knows that Obama is not dangerous and finally said so last Friday to another rally participant whose fears were extravagant. If Obama were that dangerous, if he really did "pal around with terrorists" it would be a matter for the Justice Department to investigate. McCain’s campaign, and its despicable allies in the media, was engaged in McCarthyism the past two weeks. It was, in the strictest sense of the word, a shame. The irony is that such gutter politics has not diminished Obama’s poll numbers one iota, it has only diminished McCain’s standing before history. The election is three weeks from today. McCain may not be able to win the election, but he can salvage his reputation.
People invoke the phrase "beneath contempt" far too casually. You need to reserve it for moments like this. Trafficking in this new McCarthyism, like trafficking in the old McCarthyism, is beneath contempt.
Michael Sean Winters