The latest bobble-head demagogue named Joe
Hard to say if Joe Wilson is another Joe McCarthy. He did call the President of the United States a lair as Obama spoke to an official joint session of Congress, which is certainly a McCarthy thing to do. Don’t debate the issue, attack the individual. McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin in the early 1950s, did it by claiming the target individual, whoever it happened to be, was “a Communist.”
His act came to be known as “McCarthyism,” one of the grimiest terms in American political history. Wrote journalist/historian David Halberstam in “The Fifties:” “(McCarthy) knew instinctively how to brush aside the protests of his witnesses, how to humiliate vulnerable, scared people. In the end he produced little beyond fear and headlines.”
Joe Wilson, until this week an unknown South Carolina congressman, may or may not have those instincts, and only time will tell if he is a mouthpiece for some political operative who does. If there are any investigative reporters left in the country, I imagine they are hard at work this week, looking for such a link.
But there is another link that is obvious, and troublesome. Since Wednesday night, when Wilson shouted, “You lie!” at President Obama during his address on health care reform, the Republican right has seized on him as a hero. I say “Republican right” to distinguish that bedrock group from Republican moderates, and what several commentators (including me) have begun carefully to call “intelligent” Republicans. Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin speak for the Republican right; John McCain, who appears to acknowledge his 2008 miscalculation, speaks for the Republican moderates; and David Brooks is the best candidate for spokesman for intelligent Republicans.
The Republican right seems to seize on bobble-head demagogues named Joe. Last year, it was Joe the Plumber. This year, it is Joe the Congressman. Hard to believe, after the Joe the Plumber goofiness, that there could be a Joe the Congressman, but there he is, making headlines for abusing the presidential office, his office, and Congress, which makes the whole new business seem so McCarthyesque.
This time, though, not in 1952, but in 2009, it looks like a reverse McCarthyism. When he shouted out (are you there, Sarah?) on Wednesday night, Joe Wilson hoisted himself onto the shoulders of millions of citizen Joe McCarthys, growing ever more comfortable in their grassroots demagoguery, whose way around debate is to accuse the President of the United States of lying, of being un-American right down to his birth certificate, of being soft on patriotism, just as McCarthy accused all Democrats of being soft on Communism. Whether he is qualified or not, Wilson may become the new McCarthy, or McCarthy surrogate. His bearers may insist. He may have only two choices, to be the bedrock right’s voice of Wilsonism, or resign the position and be tagged a “traitor.”
The original McCarthyism imploded in 1953 when McCarthy attacked the U.S. Army with his claims of Communist “infiltration.” The hearings were nationally televised, “and when it was over,” Halberstam wrote, “McCarthy had done himself in with his ugliness.” He was censured by the Senate in 1954. He was an alcoholic and died of liver disease in 1957.
What are Americans to do about Wilsonism? It is completely necessary for Joe Wilson to be censured by the Congress. It’s too late now, but the President should have called him out on Wednesday night. Just a short, quiet, declarative sentence: “Shame on you, sir, in this house.” And Americans are represented by an active media, which should be all over this.