In 1950, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy gave a speech to the Ohio County Women's Republican Club in Wheeling, WV, where he held up a piece of paper and declared,“I have here in my hand a list of 205 State Department employees that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” And so began the McCarthy witch hunt.
The paranoid anti-communist mood in the country preceded his declaration by several years with the original hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Alger Hiss case and various Cold War shocks from Russia to China to Korea. But McCarthy's attack marked the beginning of what would become an article of faith in right-wing circles for decades to come: The State Department is a nest of traitors working together to sell out America. (If you doubt it, read the pungent prose in Ann Coulter's McCarthy apologia, "Treason.")
McCarthy's accusations were ridiculous, of course. The numbers of spies he alleged had infiltrated the department ranged from a handful to hundreds and his evidence was non-existent. Even more damning, he could never produce any coherent theory as to why or how this happened and who was responsible for it, but for several years the fiery senator had many people in the country convinced that the State Department was riddled with communists. It was when he went after the Army that his crusade finally fell apart. The right is always willing to believe that a government bureaucrat would sell out his country, but the military is (usually) a bridge too far.
The end of the McCarthy witch hunt did not end conservative hostility to the State Department. Every Soviet incursion was met with howls of disapproval if there had been even the slightest U.S. diplomatic overture. These were seen as signs of weakness, echoing what they considered to be the greatest error of American statecraft -- the "sellout at Yalta" after WWII. In their view, diplomacy, the State Department's raison d'etre, is nothing more than a flaccid attempt to dilute American power. And even after the red scare petered out, the suspicion that the department was teeming with impotent liberal simps was prevalent among conservatives, always worried that any opportunity for America to exert its will through sheer dominant force might be obstructed by some sort of diplomatic interference. Daniel Bell, who wrote an influential book back in the early 1960s called "The Radical Right," even described their anti-communism as a "populist revolt against the State Department."
This suspicion of the State Department has continued even in Republican administrations. During the Reagan administration Secretary of State George Schultz was famously at odds with Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and there was little love lost between the Bush administration's Dick Cheney and Colin Powell. When the Democrats have the executive branch it's much, much worse. There is just something about the State Department that drives conservatives a little bit crazy.
Of course nothing on earth drives them as crazy as Bill and Hillary Clinton, their most hated enemies. The Republicans wasted tens of millions of dollars back in the 1990s trying to destroy them. From Travelgate to Whitewater to Filegate to the Lincoln bedroom, to John Huang/Charlie Tree/Johnny Chung to Monica Lewinsky (none of which, with exception of some furtive extra-marital fellatio in a hallway, resulted in a finding of any wrongdoing) they just could not quit them. And they could not win.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that when the radical right's decades-long mistrust of the State Department combined with their decades-long crusade against Hillary Clinton, the result would be an incoherent howl of suspicion, confusion and inchoate rage. Throughout that marathon hearing yesterday, if there was a theme, a theory or even a rough guess about what Clinton was supposed to have done, it was extremely hard to see what it was. Under the leadership of Trey Gowdy, a man reputed to be a crack prosecutor, the Republicans were disorganized and unprepared, lurching from one topic to another without connecting any dots or explaining to the nation just what in the world this torturous exercise was supposed to achieve.
But despite their embarrassing lack of focus, the hours of questions about Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal did illuminate where their dark suspicions really lie. They are once again indulging in McCarthyite conspiracy theories, this time some sort of "sell-out at Benghazi" at the hands of Hillary Clinton and her diabolical Sith Lord. It's hard to truly know what the conspiracy theory is because they were so disjointed in their presentation, but there seems to be some notion that Blumenthal was trying to arrange some outside governmental activity in Libya at the behest of Clinton and that this somehow means she violated the Espionage Act. (Garance Franke-Ruta helpfully directed us to this post from the right-wing fever swamp to explain it.)
So it's about spies in the State Department. As usual. Only this time it's Hillary Clinton, their most hated nemesis, the one who simply won't go down no matter how hard they hit her. The frustration was palpable.
Joe McCarthy was eventually brought low by his own hubris. A man named Joseph Welch put the final point on it when he said, "at long last sir, have you no decency?" It was Congressman Elijah Cummings who made the similarly powerful moral statement in the hearing yesterday when he said:
"I don't know what we want from you. Do we want to badger you over and over again until you get tired, until we do get the gotcha moment he's talking about?
"We're better than that. We are so much better. We are a better country. And we are better than using taxpayer dollars to try to destroy a campaign. That's not what America is all about."
Sadly, witch hunts are as American as apple pie. The good news is that if yesterday's hearing is any example, today's witch hunters are all ham-handed Kevin McCarthys instead of Tail-gunner Joes. Right wing conspiracy nuts aren't what they used to be. Maybe we're making progress after all.
Watch highlights from the 11-hour Benghazi hearing:
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