BILL MOYERS: You’ve heard us talk at times about George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, and the amnesia that sets in when all of us flush events down the memory hole, leaving us at the mercy of only what we know today.

Sometimes though, the past comes back to haunt, like a ghost. It happened to me recently watching the news. You may have seen this:

REPRESENTATIVE ALLEN WEST: I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party […]It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

BILL MOYERS: That’s Congressman Allen West of Florida, a Republican and Tea Party favorite. At a local gathering, he was asked how many of his fellow members of Congress are, quote, “card-carrying Marxists or International Socialists.” Listen again to his reply:

REPRESENTATIVE ALLEN WEST: I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party […] It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

BILL MOYERS: Little of what Allan West says ever surprises me. He’s called President Obama “a low-level socialist agitator,” said anyone with an Obama bumper sticker on their car is “a threat to the gene pool,” and told liberals like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to “get the hell out of the United States of America.” Apparently he gets his talking points from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or the discredited right-wing rocker, Ted Nugent.

But this time I shook my head in disbelief. Seventy-eight to 81 Democrats, members of the Communist Party? That’s when the memory hole opened and a ghost slithered into the room.

The specter stood there, watching the screen, a snickering smile on its stubbled face. And I did a double take. Sure enough, it was the ghost of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin farm boy who grew up to become one of the most contemptible thugs in American politics.

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: There is that small, closely-knit group of administration Democrats who are now the complete prisoners, and under the complete domination of the bureaucratic communistic Frankenstein which they themselves have created […] They shouldn’t be called Democrats, they should be referred to properly as the Commiecrat Party.

BILL MOYERS: It was the early 1950’s. The Cold War had begun and Americans were troubled by the Soviet Union’s rise as an atomic superpower. Looking for a campaign issue, McCarthy seized on fear and ignorance, to announce his discovery of a conspiracy within: Communist subversives who had infiltrated the government.

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: I think we’ve got a much more serious situation now than Communist infiltration of the C.I.A. […] the question of Communist infiltration of atomic hydrogen bomb plants.

BILL MOYERS: In speech after speech, McCarthy would hold up a list of names of members of the Communist Party he said had burrowed their way into government agencies and colleges and universities. The number he claimed would vary from day to day and when pressed to make his list public, McCarthy would stall or claim he had accidentally thrown it away.

SENATOR JOHN McCLELLAN: Have we yet received the names, and I assume they’re in the file, of the claimed 133 Communists that are ready for investigation? I’ve asked for them. Have I yet received them?

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: You’d know better than I, Senator.

BILL MOYERS: His failure to produce much proof to back his claims never gave him pause, as he employed lies and innuendo with swaggering bravado.

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: Now the hard fact is, the hard fact is that those who wear the label – those who wear the label Democrat wear it with the stain of a historic betrayal.

BILL MOYERS: McCarthy, wrote one historian, had “stumbled upon a brilliant, demagogic technique. Others deplored treachery. McCarthy would speak of traitors.”

And so he did, in a fearsome, reckless crusade that terrorized Washington, destroyed lives, and made a shambles of due process.

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: Now, Mr. Chairman, do I have the floor or do I not?


SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: Oh, be quiet. Mr. Chairman?

SENATOR STUART SYMINGTON: I haven’t the slightest intention of being quiet, Senator McCarthy.

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: Mr. Chairman, do I have the floor?

SENATOR STUART SYMINGTON: The Counsel is running this committee and you’re not running it.

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: Mr. Chairman, do I have the floor?

BILL MOYERS: Millions of Americans lapped it up, but in the end Joe McCarthy would be done in by the medium he had used so effectively to spread his poison: television. The legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow bravely exposed McCarthy’s tactics on the CBS program, See It Now.

ANNOUNCERM: On the week’s news.

EDWARD R. MURROW: This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.

BILL MOYERS: Then for 36 days that spring, on live TV, during Senate hearings on McCarthy’s charges questioning the loyalty of the Army, we saw the man raw. Exposed for the cowardly scoundrel he was. The climactic moment came as the Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, defending the Army, reacted with outrage when McCarthy accused his young associate Fred Fisher of Communism.

JOSEPH WELCH: 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?

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch.

JOSEPH WELCH: I’ll say it hurts.

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: Mr. Chairman, as a point of personal privilege, I’d like to finish this.

JOSEPH WELCH: Senator, I think it hurts you, too, sir. If there is a God in heaven it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further. I will not ask Mr. Cohn any more witnesses. You, Mr. Chairman, may if you will, call the next witness.

BILL MOYERS: McCarthy never recovered. His tactics had been opposed from the outset by a handful of courageous Republican Senators, and now they pressed their case with renewed vigor.

I was working that summer on Capitol Hill during my college break, and finagled myself into the Senate chamber the very day one of them, Senator Ralph Flanders of Vermont, introduced a motion to censure Joseph McCarthy. When it eventually passed 67 to 22, McCarthy was finished. He soon disappeared from the front pages, and three years later, he was dead.

It all came back the other night, as Congressman West summoned those foul spirits from the vasty deep. The ghost stepped out of the past.

Like McCarthy, the more Allen West is challenged about his comments, the more he doubles down on them. Now he’s blaming the “corrupt liberal media” for stirring the pot against him – a trick for which McCarthy taught the master class. And the Congressman’s latest fusillades continue to distort the beliefs and policies of those he smears – no surprise there, either.

And to help him continue his fight for the “heart and soul” of America he’s asking his supporters for a contribution of ten dollars or more. There could even be a super PAC in this – with McCarthy’s ghost as its honorary chairman.

Plenty of kindred spirits are out there to sign on. Like the author of the book The Grand Jihad who wrote that whether the president is Christian or not, “the faith to which Obama actually clings is neocommunism.”

Or the blogger who claims Obama is running the country into the ground “by way of the same type of race-baiting and class warfare Communism cannot exist without.” She goes on to say his policies are “unbecoming to an American president.”

From there it’s only a short hop to the column that popped up on the rightwing website Newsmax, hinting of a possible coup “as a last resort to resolve the ‘Obama problem.’” Military intervention, the author wrote, is what Obama's "agenda for 'fundamental change' toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America." The column was quickly withdrawn but not before the website exposed it.

So beware, Congressman West, beware: in the inflammable pool of toxic paranoia that passes these days as patriotism in America, a single careless match can light an inferno.

With all due respect, you would serve your country well to withdraw your remarks and apologize for them. But if not, perhaps there are members of your own party, as possessed of conscience and courage as that handful of Republicans who took on Joseph McCarthy, who will now abandon fear and throw cold water on your incendiary remarks.

Bill Moyers Essay: The Ghost of Joe McCarthy

In this broadcast essay, Bill connects the disgraceful McCarthyism of the past to its modern resurgence in the comments of Rep. Allen West and others. Haven’t we learned this lesson already?

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