Commentary: Joe McCarthy won the Democratic debate
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Commentary: Joe McCarthy won the Democratic debate

When Elizabeth Warren aimed her character assassination at Bernie Sanders in the seventh Democratic presidential debate, she may have thought she'd won a round. And maybe she did.

But the real winner was that old red baiter, the late Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin.

Everything that man said and did was a lie (to borrow a description from another McCarthy - Mary, the writer). His dishonesty was so profound that every word he uttered, including "and" and "but," was a lie.

Sure politicians lie. Joe Biden has told some whoppers. So has Donald Trump.

But Joe McCarthy turned politics itself into a lie by stringing together insinuation, hearsay, labeling and outright defamation. These fed what became known as "the paranoid style" of American politics. The idea is to make the public think about a fellow citizen: Maybe he is not what he seems. Maybe he's a wolf in sheep's clothing.

The insinuation cannot just boost the accuser. It has to discredit his target.

Joe McCarthy turned legislative oversight into a witch hunt. He did it by accusing people of something they could often not disprove. He did it by discrediting anyone who questioned him. He attacked and then played the victim.

Joe McCarthy took a label - communist, or more often, communist sympathizer, a category so broad it could apply to anyone who crossed McCarthy - and made it libel per se. Slap that label on someone and they were done - their career and reputation in tatters.

Now, Warren is not Joe McCarthy, and the woke and cancel culture types are not the House Un-American activities committee. But Warren's slur against Sanders - calling him a sexist - is the triumph of McCarthyism. It is the politics of accusation and morally undermining someone, not with an argument, but an accusation and a label.

Try defending yourself by saying, "I'm not a sexist." Or, "I'm not a racist."

Everything Warren did - every step she took in this little episode - was repugnant.

First, she leaked a private accusation to a news organization that reported it as fact without attribution or verification.

Verification was impossible since only two people were present - Sen. Warren and Sen. Sanders.

She says he told her that a woman could not be elected president. He says he never said it. She, tellingly, did not press the point in the debate. But a CNN reporter did, basically calling Sanders a liar.

But is it likely that Sanders was lying? He is known for being cantankerous and independent, but not for lying.

It is more likely that Warren, who was no more a Native American than Joe McCarthy was a war hero, misheard, bent the truth or reconstructed it to suit her purposes one year after the conversation.

Good reporters, cops, historians and biographers learn very quickly that any two people who were the only witnesses to an event, or participants in a conversation, may tell it in two very different ways.

That's the charitable explanation. The less charitable one is that Warren, who, unlike Sanders, has a mixed record with truth, repurposed and refashioned a memory to help her fading campaign.

But she did it with an epithet, not an argument.

Maybe Sanders said: A woman can win the presidency. (He has been saying it for 30 years.) But you can't, Elizabeth.

Who knows?

Not CNN.

Suppose that Warren had said in that meeting: An old Jew can not be elected president. Would Bernie be justified in revealing this private conversation? And would he be justified in calling the person who said it ageist and anti-Semitic?

Warren did a sleazy thing.

Friends do not violate each other's trust.

And public people should be judged on public records and public words. For all of us should be allowed privacy and space in which to be foolish or wrong, even politicians. Lyndon Johnson said many ugly and unfortunate things in private that he may have meant lightly or meant not at all. Before you call him a racist or bigot, look at what he said and did in the public eye and when at work.

Sanders is almost certainly not a private sexist. He was working for equal rights and winning elections while doing so when Warren was still teaching at Harvard. Unless someone at CNN has acquired godlike powers, none of us can read or judge another heart. We have to go by actions and the public record. Sanders offered to back Warren for president in 2016. He ran after she demurred.

But there is something else, something even darker in Warren's actions - engaging in presumptive libel just before the Iowa caucuses to try to discredit Sanders.

This is true McCarthyism.

It is the old Tail Gunner Joe cocktail: innuendo, hearsay, labeling and defamation.

"Sexist" is not as bad as misogynist, the next step on the libel ladder. Nor does it compare to the true moral equivalent to "communist" today - "racist" - but sexist is discrediting and for many disqualifying.

It is a fair and useful thing to attack systemic racism or sexism - like the disrespect for female filmmakers in woke Hollywood. But what is the value of calling someone with no record of racism or sexism a racist or sexist? There is no value to anyone but the name-caller. He, or she, has managed to besmirch the named, and maybe critically wound and silence him.

It is loathsome. And it is a form of psychological manipulation. Sanders cannot say to a woman who accuses him of sexism, "That's a lie." That would "prove" his sexism.

Oh, for the days when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought about health care plans.

Character assassination, labeling with a libelous word, impugning, is not politics. It is opposite of politics. It is way beyond an ad hominem argument. It is the abandoning of argument for violence by other means - the word as a weapon instead of a tool.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

Keith C. Burris is executive editor of the Post-Gazette, and vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (kburris@post-gazette.com).

Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at www.post-gazette.com

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