Notes from the cutting room floor: Joseph Welch and Joe McCarthy

The Washington Post picked up my piece on Khizr Khan as the Joseph Welch of 2016. There wasn’t room to include much about who Joseph Welch really was, or the context of his famous rebuke delivered to Senator McCarthy.  Among other sources, William Manchester’s addictive phone-book-sized history The Glory and the Dream, has a nice little section telling this story.

Below is what didn’t fit in the Post piece.

To make a long story short, the 1954 hearings concerned the Army’s treatment of David Schine, a McCarthy staffer who had recently been drafted. There were allegations that McCarthy’s assistant Roy Cohn had sought special treatment for his close friend–and, as it happens, his rumored lover–Mr. Schine. As the dispute escalated, McCarthy accused the Army of trying to shield Communists. Welch, the Army’s special counsel in these hearings, was a 63-year-old lifelong Republican, senior partner in the venerable firm, Hale and Dorr.

Under Welch’s questioning, Cohn blustered that he knew of roughly 130 subversives in U.S. defense plants. Welch responded that Cohn should immediately provide these names to the FBI, which Cohn declined to do.

In an effort to rescue Cohn and to derail these damaging questions, McCarthy interceded on live national television to state that Fred Fischer, a young Hale and Dore associate, had belonged to a “Communist front organization,” the National Lawyers Guild.

Welch responded with spontaneous [See JeffeyK622’s comment comment below] anger. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” Welch drew blood with his famous statement: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

That question answered itself, emboldening McCarthy’s enemies, encouraging McCarthy’s defenders to turn away. Welch cut through a national debate powered by fears of secret enemies in our midst by calling attention to McCarthy’s cruelty towards a single sympathetic person, someone Welch cared about and was ready to defend. In these early days of television, millions Americans watched it live, and had never seen anything quite like it.

John McCain’s statement this morning provides further confirmation of the political damage this case has inflicted on Donald Trump.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

10 thoughts on “Notes from the cutting room floor: Joseph Welch and Joe McCarthy”

  1. I know it's a better story if Welch's response was born of "spontaneous anger," but according to David Oshinsky (A Conspiracy So Vast), Welch had actually rehearsed this response, because he strongly suspected that at some point McCarthy would bring up Fisher's former membership in the Lawyer's Guild. Oshinsky says (and Roy Cohn confirmed) that there was actually an agreement between Welch and McCarthy that McCarthy wouldn't bring up Fisher and Welch wouldn't bring up Roy Cohn's draft exemption.

    ETA: the name of the book by Oshinsky is actually A Conspiracy So Immense; sorry.

  2. Just to add one more layer of moral complexity: McCarthy was striking back at Welch's gay-baiting of Cohn and Schine. Saints are scarce.

  3. Yes, And the gay-bashing angle was considered a feature not a bug in liberal accounts of the episode until pretty recently.

  4. Yet McCain apparently continues to support Trump.

    I am unwilling to give much credit to any Republican who denounces Trumpery but continues to support Trump.

    Indeed, in McCain's case I wonder what it would even cost him. Would it really reduce his reelection chances? Maybe someone more familiar than I with AZ politics can comment.

  5. McCain and his ilk are so afraid of their OWN voters that they don't have the spine to stand up to this thug trump. What this election is really showing is how absolutely hateful your average republican voter really is. They love it when he does this stuff.

  6. The Trump gaffe list just grows and grows … the Mexican judge, the Star of David, the invitation to the Russian state to commit a crime on US soil by stealing email files, Captain Khan, and the does he/ doesn't he support NATO and Ukraine. I think his gaffe rate is about 1 per week, and there are 14 weeks approximately left to election day.

    Trump and his supporters will argue that no publicity is bad publicity, and "gaffes" gives him a presence in the news cycle that won him the primaries without running a orthodox expensive media campaign. As he seems perennially short of cash, and is not rich enough to self-fund, there may be a kind of method to his apparent madness. Time will tell – Hillary Clinton's boring, bog-standard campaign may be the tortoise to Trump's frenetic hare.

  7. On the good ship Donald Trump
    It’s a sweet trip to the city dump
    Where the scavengers pee
    On the remnants of the GOP…

    Need some help here fleshing this thing out so that it can become a sing-along.

  8. Shoot, he has even lost Sarah Palin's son-in-law, a very highly decorated Marine (Medal of Honor). He has offended the city of Harrisburg (there goes Pennsylvania).

    His game all along is to lose badly so that he can have his own TV or radio show and spend the next four years saying how he was cheated and what a great president he would have been and what a disaster Hillary is.

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