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Originally published Thursday, June 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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E.J. Dionne / Syndicated columnist

The rebirth of McCarthyism

In the 1950s, the right wing attacked liberals for being communists. In 2005, Karl Rove has attacked liberals for being therapists. Thus is born a...

WASHINGTON — In the 1950s, the right wing attacked liberals for being communists. In 2005, Karl Rove has attacked liberals for being therapists. Thus is born a kinder and gentler form of McCarthyism.

Named after the late Sen. Joe McCarthy, who never let the facts get in the way of his lust to charge liberals with sedition, McCarthyism has come to mean "guilt by association."

What gave McCarthyism its power was that the senator from Wisconsin did not invent the danger posed by Soviet communism. The Soviet Union was a real threat and there were communist spies working in America.

What made McCarthy and his allies so insidious was their eagerness to level the "soft on communism" charge against even staunchly anti-communist liberals. One of them was Secretary of State Dean Acheson, an architect of Harry Truman's tough policy of containing Soviet power. In the 1952 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pounded Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson for earning a "Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment."

The McCarthyites' real enemies were not communists but the New Deal liberals who had dominated American politics for 20 years. The McCarthy crowd was willing to divide the nation at a time of grave international peril if that's what it took to beat the liberals.

Rove's instantly famous speech last week to the New York state Conservative Party should be read in light of this history and not be written off as a cheap, one-time partisan attack. On the contrary, the address by Rove, President Bush's most important adviser, provides the outlines of a sophisticated strategy aimed at making liberals and Democrats all look soft on terrorism.

Here are the key passages: "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to submit a petition. ... Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said: We will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said: We must understand our enemies."

Liberals and Democrats were enraged by Rove because virtually every office-holding liberal and Democrat closed ranks behind President Bush on 9/11. They endorsed the use of force against the terrorists and, when the time came, strongly backed the war in Afghanistan.

But Rove knows how to play this game. The only evidence he adduces for his therapy charge is a petition in which the current executive director of Move-On.org called for "moderation and restraint" in the wake of 9/11. Rove then slides smoothly from the attack on MoveOn to attacks on Michael Moore and Howard Dean. Finally, Rove tosses in an assault on Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., for his statement that an FBI report on the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay might remind Americans of the practices of Nazi and communist dictatorships.

In the ensuing controversy, Rove's defenders cleverly sought to pretend that there was nothing partisan about Rove's speech. "Karl didn't say 'the Democratic Party,' " insisted Ken Mehlman, the Republican national chairman. "He said 'liberals.' " It must have been purely accidental that one of the "liberals" mentioned was the Democratic national chairman and another was the Senate Democratic whip. It must also have been accidental that both of them, like most other liberals, supported the war in Afghanistan, not therapy. At the time, Durbin called the war "essential."

On Friday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan narrowed the Rove attack even more. McClellan found it "puzzling" that Democrats were "coming to the defense of liberal organizations like MoveOn.org and people like Michael Moore," when, in fact, Democrats were coming to their own defense. McClellan also ignored what Mehlman had conceded the day before — and what the text of Rove's remarks plainly shows: that Rove was attacking liberals generally, not just these two targets.

That's how guilt-by-association works. Make a charge and then — once your attack is out there — pretend that your words have been misinterpreted. Split your opponents. Put them on the defensive. Force them to say things like: "No, we're not soft on terrorism," or, "I'm not that kind of liberal." Once this happens, the attacker has already won.

Respectable opinion treats Rove's speech as just another partisan flap. It's much more. It's the reincarnation of a style of politics that turns political opponents into traitors or dupes who are soft on the nation's enemies. Welcome back to the '50s.

E.J. Dionne's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is postchat@aol.com

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