Thursday, June 21, 2007

Joes and Pinkos

I watched the movie Breach the other night and fell right in with its suspenseful storyline--FBI scrubbed-face innocent (Ryan Philippe) going up against Chris Cooper in his riveting, award-winning portrayal of snide and vindictive master spy Robert Hanssen. Great scene-chewing by Cooper and sneaky half-truths from Philippe. Seems the kid was the superior spy after all--unless you want to argue that Hanssen was riding for a fall and maybe tired of the cat-and-mouse game of decades, just too worn down to go on.

A fine film regardless, and it brought to mind the famous Army-McCarthy Hearings of late-Spring 1954, when our nation's putative, self-appointed watchdog against Communism, Joe McCarthy, attempted to expose the Secretary of the Army (a rather wan Robert Stevens) as "soft on Communism," guilty of harboring Reds in his Department.

My family was living in Arlington, Virginia, at the time--Dad was stationed at the Pentagon--and I was home sick for a couple of weeks, with serious measles or such. Eleven years old, I was reading a lot and watching some daytime television, and somehow I became hooked on the televised Senate hearings, which some may remember were broadcast "gavel to gavel," starting in late April and extending to mid-June.

Even with my father at the Pentagon, I don't think I was particularly interested in the military's point of view, and I certainly wasn't political. But the lines drawn, shown by the TV cameras day after day, were clear even to me: McCarthy and his counsel Roy Cohn on one side, and Stevens and his counsel Joseph Welch in opposition. The other participants--Senators and witnesses, and lawyers lurking in the background (Robert Kennedy was there, for example, though I sure didn't notice him)--seemed non-entities really.

Like many millions of other Americans, I was mesmerized by the hearings, watching every telecast. The cameras revealed everything (long before the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates changed political campaigns forever). McCarthy always looked like he needed a shave, pontificating windily and obliquely like maybe he'd been drinking. Cohn was sort of scrawny and nasty-looking, and his nasal voice was no improvement. Stevens seemed like a puffed-up, nervously perspiring banker. And Welch, wow, he appeared to be the epitome of wit and wisdom, everybody's favorite uncle or not-too-elderly grandfather. He even dressed snazzily as I recall, making bowties look hip again.

Of course, my memories of the verbal exchanges, the charges and countercharges of 53 years ago, aren't all that detailed. But I do remember McCarthy using his famous phrase to interrupt some speaker, "Point of order!" (later the title for a brilliant documentary, a video-to-film assemblage on those hearings that I caught at the Seattle Film Festival many years ago).

And I do most emphatically recall the climactic day, single moment even, when Welch rose to defend a young lawyer in his own firm besmirched by the Wisconsin Senator, saying to the odious other Joe, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" Then he actually cut off McCarthy's spluttering attempt to answer, and the viewing gallery erupted in applause. Man, now that was theater!

The rest of the hearings passed uneventfully, but McCarthy had signed his own death warrant, so to speak. His political career was pretty much over. The other players receded into the Washington woodwork.

Ah, but lawyer Welch, jovial Joseph, actually became a movie star, for a brief period anyway, appearing a couple of years later in Otto Preminger's courtroom movie, Anatomy of a Murder, starring James Stewart, sexy young Lee Remick, and the kinda-lazy soundtrack music of Duke Ellington. Welch played the presiding judge, and all his patrician charm was right there on the screen, though his acting was rather wooden. (Fred Thompson must have taken notes; on Law and Order he does seem, grumpily, to care.)

The nation recovered from those Red-Scare Witchhunts, and I got up and went back to school.

But I have never recovered from a lifelong aversion to politics and politicians stemming from that viewing experience. I simply don't trust any person, organization, or nation that seeks power over others. Commies, Al-Quada, Christian rightwingers and neo-cons, Capitalist mega-corporations, can't-quite-accomplish-anything Democrats--they're basically all the same, in it for the money and the right to force everybody else into some we-know-what's-best-for-you line.

A pox on all their Houses. I believe in the little guy, the common man and woman, the workers against the bosses, and the Liberal humanitarian position in general. But 40-plus years of voting every election, every issue, has not persuaded me of the power of the polling booth, only of the power of pols and polls.

As the comic strips used to put it, "Phooey."

No comments: