Van Ens: Are U.S. leaders penalized for verbally piling on? (column)
NFL referees penalize defensive players who gang tackle a downed ball carrier. They get flagged for “piling on” after a play is whistled dead.
In the early 1950s, when the Red Scare menaced America, Sen. Joseph McCarthy verbally “piled on” Hollywood moguls and East Coast elites. He accused them of being Communist sympathizers.
Initially, McCarthy received few penalties for his conspiratorial taunts. He was not forced to tone down extreme condemnations of media stars and writers caught in the crossfire of his condemnations.
McCarthy’s nasal-twanged voice and chilling eyes revealed a “law and order” crusader on a mission to smoke out “sinister communists” hiding as U.S. citizens. He perfected verbal tactics supporters admired.
“People aren’t going to remember the things we say on the issues here, our logic, our common sense, our facts,” McCarthy confided to legal counsel Roy Cohn. “They’re only going to remember the impressions” (“The Autobiography of Roy Cohn,” by Sidney Zion, 1988, p. 148).
Critics condemned McCarthy for brash, scattershot accusations. Supporters admired his blunt talk. They forgave him for using slurs, not facts, when targeting alleged Communists. McCarthy skipped research or reading to get solid evidence against Communist infiltrators. Instead, he trusted his hunches to expose the Kremlin’s spies.
McCarthy mastered the art of insinuating a communist takeover of the government.
“The country feared Communism (in the Cold War 1950s) and McCarthy knew it,” notes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham, “and he fed those fears with headlines and hearings. A master of false chargers of conspiracy-tinged rhetoric, and of calculated disrespect for conventional figures (from Truman and Eisenhower to George Marshall), McCarthy could distract the public, play the press and change the subject — all while keeping himself at center stage (“The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” Random House, 2018, p. 185).
McCarthy habitually exaggerated. Christian admirers excused his attacks on alleged Communists because McCarthy, a Roman Catholic, spoke frankly. He ignored the Good Book’s teaching: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). Instead, supporters applauded McCarthy’s tough talk. They stood by him, even when the Senate censored McCarthy for speaking falsely against innocent people.
Antagonistic media exploited McCarthy’s wayward quotes, using his rash talk to sell newspapers.
Meacham tells why media’s love-hate relationship kept McCarthy’s support strong.
“He was fantastic copy, a real-life serial. The twists and turns of the McCarthy saga meant more bylines for the reporters, more exciting headlines for the editors and, given the subject matter — alleged infiltration of the government of the United States by a fatal foe — more copies sold for the owners. Radio and television amplified McCarthy’s impact,” reports Meacham (pp. 193-194).
Even after McCarthy drank heavily and slurred his words on camera, even after televised hearings in which his flimsy evidence didn’t hold up in court, his base didn’t waver: 34 percent of U.S. citizens stood by their hero.
What led to his downfall? McCarthy excelled at selling and marketing conspiracies. His lawyer Cohn revealed secrets about why badmouthing opponents with adolescent rants has short shelf life.
“He was selling the story of America’s peril,” Cohn wrote. “He knew that he could never hope to convince anybody by delivering a dry, general accounting-office type of presentation. In consequence, he stepped up circumstances a notch or two” (“The Autobiography of Roy Cohn,” pp. 275-276).
Most citizens grew tired of fake sales pitches featuring Kardashian hype and angry melodrama. Increasingly, Americans got sick of McCarthy’s “piling on.”
They benched him from their political game.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.