Joe McCarthy lives

The Bush campaign's attacks on Democrats as "soft on terrorism" recall the dark arts of the demagogic senator. And once again, the press is playing along.

Published September 30, 2004 9:53PM (EDT)

By adopting divisive rhetoric suggesting terrorists are working to elect John Kerry, Republican leaders are posing a challenge not only for the Democratic presidential candidate but also for the press. For the first time in decades journalists find themselves reporting on a kind of public character assassination that's reminiscent of McCarthyism, according to several distinguished journalists and historians.

The former Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wis., gave his name to an "ism" by accusing people in the federal government of being communists -- without any evidence. CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow helped expose his methods in an hour-long documentary. McCarthy's inquisition collapsed when he attacked the U.S. Army and President Eisenhower.

Half a century ago, most of the press was slow to unravel McCarthy's vicious and reckless charges of treason, as reporters instead simply amplified them. "The press served as transmission belt for McCarthy's charges, making it more difficult for the truth to catch up," says Edwin Yoder, former editorial page editor of the Washington Star, once the major daily newspaper in the capital.

Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reports on McCarthyism in the 1950s, says, "The press had a difficult time covering McCarthy because it had ethical guidelines that reduced it to being stenographers: We report what people say, regardless of the fact that the 17 previous statement may have been lies."

In covering the current explosive Republican accusations without holding the accuser responsible, the press is in danger of repeating the same mistake, some observers say. "The press can't simply report flat-footed a smearing accusation against somebody's loyalty; it's the most insidious charge you can make, particularly in Washington," says Murrey Marder, who covered McCarthy for the Washington Post. "I think the press certainly can recognize quicker than anyone else when a loaded accusation, questioning somebody's loyalty, is coming out. The press should ask the accuser, 'What do you mean? What justification do you have?' That's real work, and it's called journalism."

The accusations that the Kerry campaign is aiding terrorists and that terrorists would prefer that he be elected president hark back to the ugliest period of the early Cold War. "It's reminiscent of red-baiting," Yoder says. He notes one significant difference, however: "McCarthy specialized in wild accusations and character assassinations, but he didn't get involved with electoral politics. [What's happening] today is something of a novelty."

Historian Alan Brinkley, the provost of Columbia University, agrees that even during the height of the Cold War, scathing rhetoric that called into question the loyalty or patriotism of a presidential candidate was deemed too extreme. "This kind of rhetoric never would have come into a presidential campaign during the '50s or '60s. It would come from people widely dismissed as extremists -- people on the margin of the party who were tolerated or perhaps quietly encouraged -- but never from anyone identified as the party. Now it has migrated to the very center of the campaign."

In a Sept. 24 article, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank catalogued the spate of loaded Republican statements suggesting alliances -- direct or indirect -- between Democrats and terrorists, revealing that many are coming from senior party and administration officials:

  • Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced that terrorists are going to do everything they can between now and November "to try and elect Kerry." Appearing on MSNBC this week, Hatch suggested al-Qaida's primary target today is Bush's political prospects, not necessarily the United States.
  • Republican Senate candidate John Thune of South Dakota said of his opponent, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle: "His words embolden the enemy." Thune, on NBC's "Meet the Press," declined to disavow a statement by the Republican Party chairman in his state saying Daschle had brought "comfort to America's enemies."
  • At a campaign rally on Sept. 18, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told Republicans that al-Qaida "would like to influence this election" with an attack similar to the train bombings in Madrid days before the Spanish national election in March. Asked by a reporter if he thought terrorists would operate with more comfort if Kerry were elected, Hastert said, "That's my opinion, yes."
  • The previous day, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said terrorists in Iraq "are trying to influence the election against President Bush."
  • The Post also noted, "Earlier this month, Cheney provoked an uproar when he said that on Election Day, 'if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating,' adding that the United States would not respond vigorously. Cheney later said that he was not suggesting the country would be attacked if Kerry were elected. But a few days later, he said: 'We've gone on the offense in the war on terror -- and the president's opponent, Senator Kerry, doesn't seem to approve.'"

    As part of the same concerted campaign, this week a conservative "527" advocacy group with close ties to the White House began airing a Kerry attack ad featuring photos of 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and a grainy image of Kerry. The ad's narrator states, "These people want to kill us. They killed hundreds of innocent children in Russia, 200 innocent commuters in Spain and 3,000 innocent Americans. Would you trust Kerry against the fanatic killers?" The ad was created by the Progress for America Voter Fund, which is headed by Tony Feather, a longtime ally and former student of White House political chief Karl Rove. Feather served as the political director of Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

    The charged rhetoric by Republicans has been evident all year. Last March, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told a group of Republicans: "If George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election." The talking points were first put into play last spring by right-wing radio show host Rush Limbaugh, who has routinely equated Democrats with terrorists. For example:

  • "I'm going to tell you, what's good for al-Qaida is good for the Democratic Party in this country today." (March 15)
  • "We know what they [al-Qaida] want: They want Kerry; they want the Democrats in power. They'd love that." (March 15)
  • "If you want the terrorists running the show, then you will elect John Kerry." (March 18)
  • "You don't hear the Democrats being critical of terrorists. In fact, you hear the Democrats saying, 'We've got to find a way to get along with them.'" (April 15)
  • Remarks Brinkley: "It's exactly the same kind of Cold War rhetoric: 'A vote for so-and-so is a victory for communists.' Or, 'Communists really hope so and so wins.' They're not calling that person a communist, but the implication is that his commitment to fighting communism is so soft" that he aids the enemy. "It's the same kind of tactics that were at the core of the Republican tactics in the early '50s."

    The Republican claims that Kerry would be soft on terrorism have brought a swift response from some quarters. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., called Cheney's assertion that al-Qaida wants Kerry to win "the most outrageous charge," calling it "McCarthyism of the first order." A number of editorial pages have strongly condemned this Republican campaign tactic. The New York Times, in an extraordinary lead editorial, thundered that President Bush's campaign strategy was "un-American." The Los Angeles Times called Bush a "coward" for failing to denounce the terrorist-related attacks on Kerry.

    But mainly the press has treated this Republican rhetoric as just another development on the campaign trail. A CNN report this week, noting that Kerry had criticized Bush for bungling the war on terror, concluded it was fair to say "both sides can now be described as trying to politically exploit the issue," as if Republicans charging that terrorists would prefer a Kerry victory were the same as Democrats critiquing Bush's foreign policy.

    The Washington Post's Sept. 24 article also stretched when trying to show balance by pointing to "questionable rhetoric" on the Democratic side equivalent to Sen. Hatch's suggestion that terrorists are working hard to elect Kerry. The Post's example? The crude sexual pun comedian Whoopi Goldberg had made at Bush's expense at a celebrity fundraiser for Kerry this summer.

    "That kind of equation is ridiculous," Marder says. "Someone will always provide an inadequate parallel to try to deal with [the subject]."

    "It's a bit like reporters in dealing with McCarthy," says Lewis. He notes that most reporters then were overly anxious to dutifully report McCarthy's accusations as though they were objective news, and that today reporters are trying to present the contemporary versions with false balance. "They haven't figured it out yet."

    By Eric Boehlert

    Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

    MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

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    Al-qaida Dick Cheney John F. Kerry D-mass. Osama Bin Laden Rush Limbaugh