Calling For Truth and Dignity in the Nation’s Conduct

Seattle Times

Near the end of the Edward R. Murrow movie, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Sen. Joseph McCarthy is confronted by Joseph Welch, civilian counsel for the U.S. Army. McCarthy’s personal abuse of opponents had reached a peak in the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954.

In his rumbling voice, Welch intoned, “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Where is Welch when we need him? (Or Murrow, for that matter?)

And where is the decency of this nation?

Who built the moral cesspool into which this nation has sunk with its secret prisons and secret prisoners, legalized torture, indefinite imprisonment without trial or counsel?

Is it Vice President Dick Cheney, pleading a CIA exemption from the torture ban that passed the Senate with 90 votes?

Is it Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert who, upon hearing leaked intelligence that the CIA is using secret prisons in other countries, beyond the reach of American torture laws, decided to investigate the leak — but not the prisons?

Is it the military commanders who have escaped reprimand while a series of low-level soldiers take the blame for abuses at Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan? Or the White House and Justice Department lawyers who drafted the “soft torture” rules?

Is it the president of the United States, who never seems to take responsibility for anything, doggedly plunging ahead, “working hard” and “doing my job”? Who is in charge here? Is it really Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a corps of hard-core neoconservatives in the Department of Defense and Cheney’s office who run the foreign policy of this country?

How are we to find the truth?

We are reminded in “Good Night, and Good Luck” that the combination of a powerful new medium, television, and a powerful old institution, the U.S. Senate, finished McCarthy, although it did not end McCarthyism.

We are reminded that the Senate was Republican at that time — thanks in no small measure to McCarthy’s “bad cop” while Dwight D.Eisenhower played “good cop” in the 1952 elections. But Eisenhower and the Senate finally got up the gumption to challenge the bully.

Where is the Senate today? Where are the hearings on failed intelligence and failed decisions of the Iraq war? Where are the hearings on secret prisons and the use of torture?

It is mighty hard to investigate your own party’s leadership. Ask the Senate of 1966 and Sen. J. William Fulbright how easy it was to haul President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War into televised hearings that lasted six days and began the unraveling of the Johnson presidency.

Where are Republicans of the stature of the late Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Fulbright? House bully-boy Tom DeLay is under indictment; Frist is being investigated for insider trading.

What independence the party shows seems limited to Sen. John McCain and a handful of back-benchers willing to oppose the leadership on rare occasions.

Bush has had a free run with Congress for five years. We seem to have adopted a parliamentary system of government, where party affiliation is more important than common sense. For the first time since 1881, a president went a full term without casting a veto. Will Bush exercise his first veto on the bill outlawing torture — if so, what does that say about the moralistic White House?

Or will the Congress once again roll over and cave in to Cheney and Bush and the weary old cries of using whatever tactics it takes to defeat our enemies, regardless of what it does to our moral standing at home and abroad?

If this is, indeed, a new form of parliamentary government, where is the “loyal opposition”? Can we find Democrats who have the courage to stand up and shout that the emperor has no clothes, or will they continue to cower for fear of being declared unpatriotic by the virulent voices of talk radio?

What, exactly, is patriotism? Is it a yellow car ribbon or is it calling for truth and dignity in the conduct of this nation?

And, finally, who is ultimately to blame for this mess? Could it be that the answer, again, is found in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” in Murrow’s closing lines as he exposed McCarthy:

“(McCarthy) didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.’ Good night, and good luck.”

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages.

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