April 18, 2008—In the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, with Sen. Joe McCarthy near the peak of his guilt-by-association bullying, he famously attacked the patriotism of a young Boston lawyer who worked for Joseph Welch, the Army’s chief legal representative.
“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Welch responded. “Have you left no sense of decency?”
Now, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign continues to sink into a mud pile of guilt-by-association smears against Barack Obama, Welch’s famous question could be posed to the Clintons and their supporters: How far are they prepared to go and have they “left no sense of decency?”
In the April 16 debate in Philadelphia, Sen. Clinton lit up when her husband’s former adviser, George Stephanopoulos, finally asked one of her campaign’s long-plotted attack lines – raising a tenuous association between Obama and an aging Vietnam-era radical William Ayers.
Stephanopoulos, acting as an ABC News debate moderator, and Clinton also injected a false suggestion that Ayers had either hailed the 9/11 attacks or had used the occasion as a grotesque opportunity to call for more bombings.
(In reality, an earlier interview about his memoir was coincidently published by the New York Times in its Sept. 11, 2001, edition, which went to press on Sept. 10, before the attacks. But Stephanopoulos and Clinton left the impression with the public that Ayers's comments represented a ghoulish reaction to the 9/11 attacks.)
In another guilt-by-association moment, Clinton linked Obama, via his former church pastor Jeremiah Wright, to Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan and a Hamas representative who had been allowed to publish an essay in the church’s newsletter.
“You know, these are problems, and they raise questions in people’s minds,” Clinton said. “And so this is a legitimate area, as everything is when we run for office, for people to be exploring and trying to find answers.”
So, Sen. Clinton believes it is now justified to question Sen. Obama’s patriotism by delving into the opinions of people who have played even minor roles in his political and personal life – or even people who associated with those people.
Clinton’s campaign also has tried to engender doubts about Obama’s patriotism by questioning why he often doesn’t wear a flag lapel pin – although Sen. Clinton and John McCain also appear in public without flag lapel pins.
The other ABC News moderator, Charles Gibson, made Obama’s frequent lack of a flag lapel pin one of the lead questions in the debate.
“It comes up again and again when we talk to voters,” Gibson said. “And as you may know, it is all over the Internet. And it’s something of a theme that Senators Clinton and McCain’s advisers agree could give you a major vulnerability if you’re the candidate in November. How do you convince Democrats that this would not be a vulnerability?”
So, because some smear against Sen. Obama’s patriotism is circulated on the Internet – and was pushed by neoconservative columnist William Kristol – it suddenly becomes a legitimate issue for a prime-time debate.
(Besides the fact that McCain and Clinton also frequently go without flag lapel pins, there are many demeaning comments about McCain and Clinton “all over the Internet” that don’t merit discussion in a major debate or anyplace else for that matter.)
The Clintons had a different perspective, too, when the insinuations about a person’s lack of patriotism were about Bill Clinton in fall 1992. As that campaign heated up, President George H.W. Bush unleashed his subordinates to dig up whatever dirt they could to impugn Clinton’s loyalty to his country.
Some of Bush’s political appointees rifled through Clinton’s passport file looking for an apocryphal letter from his student days in which Clinton supposedly sought to renounce his citizenship.
Though no such a letter was ever found, Bush exploited the mystery around Clinton’s passport files to raise questions about Clinton’s 1970 student trips to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, where he allegedly stayed with Communist friends.
With his patriotism challenged, Clinton saw his once-formidable lead shrink. Panic spread through the Clinton campaign. Ironically, one of nervous Clinton’s aides who contacted congressional Democrats seeking their help in countering the Republican smears was George Stephanopoulos.
Bush's allies also put out another suspicion, that Clinton might have been a KGB “agent of influence.” Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times headlined that allegation on Oct. 5, 1992, a story that attracted President Bush’s personal interest.
“Now there are stories that Clinton ... may have gone to Moscow as [a] guest of the KGB,” Bush wrote in his diary that day. [For the fullest account of the 1992 Passportgate case, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Sensing that the loyalty theme was hurting Clinton, President Bush kept stoking the fire. On CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 7, 1992, Bush suggested anew that there was something sinister about a possible Clinton friend maybe removing the apocryphal renunciation letter from Clinton’s passport file.
“Why in the world would anybody want to tamper with his files, you know, to support the man?” Bush wondered before a national TV audience. “I mean, I don’t understand that. What would exonerate him – put it that way – in the files?"
The next day, in his diary, Bush ruminated suspiciously about Clinton’s Moscow trip: “All kinds of rumors as to who his hosts were in Russia, something he can’t remember anything about.”
On Oct. 9, the FBI complicated Bush’s attack strategy by concluding that there was no evidence that anyone had removed anything from Clinton’s passport file. Some Democrats also accused the President of behaving like Joe McCarthy, impugning someone’s patriotism without credible evidence.
At that point, Bush began backpedaling: “If he’s told all there is to tell on Moscow, fine,” Bush said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I’m not suggesting that there’s anything unpatriotic about that. A lot of people went to Moscow, and so that’s the end of that one.”
But documents that I found years later at the National Archives revealed that privately Bush was not ready to surrender the disloyalty theme. The day before the first presidential debate on Oct. 11, Bush prepped himself with one-liners designed to spotlight doubts about Clinton’s loyalty if an opening presented itself.
“It’s hard to visit foreign countries with a torn-up passport,” read one of the scripted lines. Another zinger read: “Contrary to what the Governor’s been saying, most young men his age did not try to duck the draft. ... A few did go to Canada. A couple went to England. Only one I know went to Russia.”
If Clinton had criticized Bush’s use of a Houston hotel room as a legal residence, Bush was ready to hit back with another Russian reference: “Where is your legal residence, Little Rock or Leningrad?”
But the Oct. 11 presidential debate – which also involved Reform Party candidate Ross Perot – did not go as Bush had hoped. Bush did raise the loyalty issue in response to an early question about character, but the incumbent’s message was lost in a cascade of inarticulate sentence fragments.
“I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy because I question – I’ll put it this way, I think it’s wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil,” Bush said.
“I just think it’s wrong. I – that – maybe – they say, ‘well, it was a youthful indiscretion.’ I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and – I’m sorry but demonstrating – it’s not a question of patriotism, it’s a question of character and judgment.”
Clinton countered by challenging Bush directly.
“You have questioned my patriotism,” the Democrat shot back. Clinton then unloaded his own zinger: “When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people’s patriotism, he was wrong. He was wrong, and a senator from Connecticut stood up to him, named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism.”
Many observers rated Clinton’s negative comparison of Bush to his father as Bush’s worst moment in the debate. An unsettled Bush didn’t regain the initiative for the remainder of the evening.
Still, the Republicans didn’t give up on the idea of smearing Clinton by highlighting his association with college friends in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, both communist countries in 1970.
Another pre-election ploy was to have Czech newspapers run stories about the Communist affiliations of Clinton’s hosts – and then try to blow back those stories to the U.S. news media. Three Czech papers carried such stories on Oct. 24, 1992. The headline in the Cesky Denik newspaper read: “Bill Was With Communists.”
However, without today’s Internet to spread the word and with the right-wing U.S. news media not nearly as large as it is now, the Czech stories didn’t get the attention that some in the Bush campaign had hoped.
In January 1994, the Czech news media reported that the Czech secret police, the Federal Security and Information Service (FBIS), had collaborated with the Bush reelection campaign to dig up dirt on Clinton’s student trip to Prague.
The centrist newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes reported that during the 1992 campaign, FBIS gave the Republicans internal data about Clinton’s Moscow-Prague trips and supplied background material about Clinton’s “connections” inside Czechoslovakia.
But that was then, and this is now.
Rather than demonstrating moral consistency by rejecting Joe McCarthy-like tactics, the Clintons have embraced them, tarring Obama with guilt by association, even when it’s a Kevin Bacon-style two or three people removed.
Now, it’s okay to question Obama’s patriotism because he served on a Chicago philanthropic board with William Ayers, a graying college English professor, or because Obama attended a church where Rev. Wright preached – and because Rev. Wright had some dealing with Louis Farrakhan.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s debate comments suggest that the exploration of Obama’s associations has only just begun. As Joseph Welch might have said, “Have you left no sense of decency?”
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This story was published on April 18, 2008.