No sense of decency
I can't imagine why, but I felt called to write about the history of publicly televised Congressional hearings in Washington. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Another day—another moment in history! Sixty-eight years ago today was the 30th and most famous day of the Army-McCarthy hearings in Washington, DC.
While the hearings are remembered as the comeuppance of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, on paper they focused on a very narrow topic:
McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, were accused of inappropriately pressuring the Army to give preferential treatment to a friend and former employee of theirs, G. David Schine, 26, Harvard class of 1949, who had been drafted into the military as a private.
Firing back, McCarthy and Cohn claimed that the Army was making a big deal out of nothing, in retaliation for their claims that the Army itself was rife with communists and others posing security risks.
Here, I'll let a gossipy, lengthy, contemporaneous account from The Harvard Crimson student newspaper about Schine provide some color. (I’m sure nobody expected would be read almost seven decades later!)
To many it seems incredible that the fortunes of this young man [Schine] should demand the sustained attention of such an array of talent, and should obsess the nation by press and TV.
But to most of those who knew Dave Schine '49 at Harvard it is no surprise. …
Almost all those who knew him find the present battle over special privileges in the Army perfectly consistent with their reconstructed picture of him.
The article goes on to describe Schine as one of the richest men in his Harvard class, and the heir to a hotel empire who had a valet in his dorm room and “a big black convertible equipped with a two-way phone-radio.”
(As a bit of an aside, it’s interesting to realize this was an era when wealthy trust fund boys still wound up serving in the military like everyone else. What’s funny is how Schine barely gets mentioned in this story again.)
The hearings turned into a spectacle and captivated the nation, largely because for the first time, TV networks cleared their calendars to broadcast almost gavel-to-gavel coverage, and 20 million Americans watched.
Quick final detail so this will make more sense—McCarthy and Welch apparently had an agreement to steer clear of two side subjects that might prove embarrassing, but that otherwise wouldn’t really move the ball forward:
McCarthy agreed not to bring up the fact that a lawyer on staff at Welch’s law firm named Frederick Fisher had previously been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, which the FBI had labeled a Communist organization. Welch was concerned that Fisher’s reputation would be hurt if this came up during the hearings.
In exchange, Welch agreed not to bring up the fact that since Cohn was 27 years old during the hearings in 1954, that meant he’d been of prime draft age during the Korean War and afterward, just a few years before, but he’d somehow avoided military service. Since the entire hearing was in theory about preference in the military, it might have been damaging.
So, Welch and Cohn went at each other in the hearings—aggressively but professionally. But, as Welch gained the upper hand, McCarthy jumped in toward the end—identifying Fisher and, according to accounts, violating the agreement.
McCarthy: “I think we should tell [Mr. Welch] that he has in his law firm a young man named Fisher ... who has been, for a number of years, a member of an organization which is named, oh, years and years ago, as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party.”
Welch: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. ... I like to think I'm a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. ... Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
I’m afraid the drama doesn’t really come out in the transcript today, but PBS has a video that sets it all up pretty nicely, here:
Anyway, the last two lines are certainly the most famous to come out of the hearing, maybe out of any hearing in Washington during the past 100 years. And they had an effect.
Truly, this was a moment when McCarthy went quickly from being one of the most-feared figures in Washington to an almost immediate has-been.
Later in 1954 the full Senate censured McCarthy. He only lived another three years; he died at age 48. Official cause of death: Hepatitis, acute, cause unknown, although popularly he was basically said, by unsympathetic biographers, to have drank himself to death.
As for the others:
Welch went back to Boston to practice law. He also had a role in the 1959 courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder starring Jimmy Stewart. Welch played a judge; he said he took the role because "it looked like that was the only way I'd ever get to be a judge."
Before all of this, Cohn had become famous as a prosecutor at the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. After working with McCarthy he had a 30-year New York legal career, with a client roster that included Donald Trump, and honestly, there's no way I can summarize everything here. (Link to Wikipedia, for starters.) He died of complications from AIDS in 1986.
Schine married a former Miss Universe (Hillevi Rombin Schine, of Sweden), had a family, ran his family’s hotels and was quite successful. He got into movies and music, and was executive producer of the classic 1971 movie, The French Connection. He and his wife and one of their sons died, sadly, in a private plane crash in 1996.
One of the things I used to like about living in Washington was that every day, every building, every seat in almost every restaurant, was rife with history if you knew where to look. Let’s call June 9, “No Sense of Decency Day.”
7 other things worth knowing today
The mystery of why “7 other things” literally disappears for some readers continues. But, I think it might be limited to people who use certain emails—maybe, Protonmail, maybe others. Anyway, I’m switching back to bullet points. Let me know if you can’t see what’s below. Thanks!
Oh, look at that, what do you know… I managed to write an entire newsletter about historical televised Congressional hearings without mentioning the modern counterpart: the televised Congressional hearings on the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol that will begin this evening. “[M]ost major TV news stations will be airing at least Thursday’s hours-long hearings in full: ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC and CNN plan to. Fox News is the only major news network to decide not to, instead saying it will continue with its regular, primetime coverage and talk about the hearings ‘as warranted.’” (WashPost)
A man carrying a pistol, a knife and zip ties was arrested Wednesday near the Maryland home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he called 911 saying he was having suicidal thoughts and threatening to kill the associate justice. Police say Nicholas John Roske of Simi Valley, Calif., 26, [planned] to break into Kavanaugh's house and kill him, and said he was upset by the pending reversal of Roe v. Wade and believed Kavanaugh would vote to loosen gun control laws. (CBC)
Mortgage demand sank to its lowest level in 22 years this week as rising interest rates and a lack of inventory cool demand among potential homebuyers. The volume of mortgage loan applications sank by 6.5% for the week ending on June 3 compared to the previous week, according to the latest data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s weekly survey. (NY Post)
An Arizona man alleged this week that he was wrongly jailed for 17 days after American Airlines falsely identified him as a burglary suspect to police. In his lawsuit, passenger Michael Lowe said he endured more than two weeks of an "unending nightmare" in a New Mexico jail (a full year later) as a result of the airline's alleged actions. (CBS News)
The Gannett newspaper chain says it's going to cut back sharply on editorial and opinion pages in its 250 regional newspapers. Readers don't want to be told what to think, the opinion articles don't do well in terms of audience, and there's too much ongoing risk that people confuse news and opinion pages anyway, an executive said. Gannett owns USA Today along with regionals like the Detroit Free Press, The Indianapolis Star, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. (Poynter)
It’s the inflation you’re not supposed to see. From toilet paper to yogurt and coffee to corn chips, manufacturers are quietly shrinking package sizes without lowering prices. It’s dubbed “shrinkflation,” and it’s accelerating worldwide. (AP)
File this one away, just in case you ever come upon anyone in a similar situation: A Missouri court has ruled that a woman who claimed she unwittingly caught a sexually transmitted disease from her former romantic partner in his car can collect $5.2 million in damages—to be funded by his car insurance company. (Kansas City Star)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Fair use. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.
Really great issue. One of the reasons I lone Understandably is the sense of history and of thoughtfully informing readers about unusual, sometimes obscure, things and characters. Whereas Twitter, cable TV is full of people believing they are bold and original while talking about the latest fashionable (often inconsequential) things and saying exactly the same things about them. Anyway, fascinated to learn of G.David Shine. The guy had a valet in his dorm room at Harvard and married a Swedish beauty queen. Got caught up with McCarthy and Cohn, left politics and never talked about it again. Became an actor and Hollywood producer. Has six children. Then went down aged 68 in a plane piloted by his son. What a life.
On McCarthy, I studied him years later. He began by making a unresearched statement about the presence of communists as a junior senator at a womens political meeting, that was published in the national news. He had to “save face”, so made up even more when asked about his source. It was fearmongering and he got attention and continued because he loved the attention. Now mind you, I was from an extremely conservative family who wanted to report my teachers to the UnAmerican Activities Committee because they said “we’re all members of the human race”. So when I dug into McCarthy when I was a senior in school, what I found was shocking. Many people lost their livelihoods because of innuendo. Families were torn apart. The nation was at each other’s throats all based on a man who had no proof for his statements and loved media attention. Put him in with Cohn and you had major trouble. I presented my findings in an English class on Shakespeare and ended with the transcript (on tape) of McCarthy being brought down. He was clearly panicking and would attack anyone to get out of the hole he had dug for himself. The class was stunned. Shakespeare would have been proud.