In 1952 a senator from Wisconsin with so little credibility among his colleagues he couldn’t land a committee assignment of any significance became a household name. Joe McCarthy claimed to have a list of 205 names of government employees known to be communists. McCarthy could never prove any of it. Nonetheless the Red Scare was borne. The lives of countless innocent Americans were ruined as this unprincipled demagogue continued unabated making similar untrue claims.
It finally ended in 1954 when two-thirds of the senate voted to censure McCarthy for his unseemly behavior. Only then did people ask how it could have happened. How could a member of congress be permitted to lie and defame innocent people, drive them out of their jobs, destroy their reputations and hound some into suicide while those in power stood by silently?
It’s the same silence we hear from Wyoming’s congressional delegation on the latest unfounded, irrational and deceitful charges made by U.S. Representative and former GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann. With absolutely no evidence, employing her patently bizarre notion of logic, Bachman demanded an investigation into her politically partisan claim that “there are individuals who are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who have positions, very sensitive positions, in our Department of Justice, our Department of Homeland Security, potentially even in the National Intelligence Agency."
Bachmann has long made political investments in her deep paranoid schizophrenia and her anti-Muslim bigotry. Like McCarthy, she has, as a result, achieved an elevated status in her party and developed a following among equally disturbed Americans.
In the 1950s, not many were willing to speak out against McCarthy though they knew he was a liar. Why? His own party benefited greatly by the fact that he had a large, loyal following. His headlines stirred American fear leading directly to the defeat of many senate Democrats. McCarthy called them “Commie-crats.” Across the country, several Democratic senators were defeated as McCarthy charged they were “soft on communism.” One was Wyoming senator Joseph O’Mahoney. McCarthy campaigned hard against him in 1952. As a result, O’Mahoney lost to Frank Barrett. Barrett returned McCarthy’s favor by being one of only 22 senate holdouts to vote against the McCarthy censure two years later.
By that time, O’Mahoney was back in the senate, having been elected in 1954 after the suicide of Wyoming’s other senator, Lester C. Hunt. Hunt’s death was integrally related to McCarthyism. Interestingly, Lester Hunt was one of the few politicians willing to confront McCarthy and his lies. Hunt said McCarthy used the “big lie” and that Republicans were unwilling to speak out because he helped (to use a contemporary term) “energize their base.” Hunt sponsored legislation allowing persons defamed by a member of congress to sue for damages. He said the bill was necessary because congress was unwilling to discipline itself. Sound familiar?
That piece of Wyoming history is relevant in the current Bachman controversy. She’s a liar. Mike Enzi, John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis know it. So, why are they silent? Even House Speaker John Boehner and Senator John McCain, the last Republican nominee for president, have called Bachmann out on her latest indecency. McCain said Bachmann’s allegations were “ugly” and “sinister.” Boehner said they were “dangerous.” Indeed they are dangerous, which is why Barrasso, Enzi and Lummis’ silence is inexcusable.
Perhaps Lummis is too close to Bachman. She sits on Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus. Maybe Barrasso’s partisan role as vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference hobbles him when it comes to criticizing a fellow party member. Senator Hunt turned down a nomination to serve on the Democratic Steering Committee. He felt it would require him to take partisan positions that might not serve his Wyoming constituents. Regardless, both Barrasso and Lummis are in positions of leadership.
This is the time for leaders to lead.
The stains of McCarthyism are too deeply a part of Wyoming history to allow political leaders to sit quietly while another demagogue roams the landscape, trampling the truth and destroying lives.