Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Amazing Endurance of Remarkable Words

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. . . Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I'm a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. . Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?  Have you no sense of decency?    Joseph Welch to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Army-McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954

My mother and I were watching the hearings on our small black-and-white TV set that summer day in 1954--the day Joseph Welch calmly but forcefully challenged Joe Mccarthy's hold on the depths of the baseless paranoia both Washington and Main Street had been wallowing in for almost a decade.  I was sixteen years old but I've never forgotten the sound of Joseph Welch's voice--the mix of rage and sorrow as he spoke those words.

Something big happened then, and I'm remembering the look of amazement on my mother's face and my own feelings--of absolute joy and shuddering fear--when Welch finished talking.  The hearing room erupted into wild cheering.  Within minutes the room had emptied, every reporter rushing out to file the story.  I didn't know until I read it recently that afterward McCarthy looked around the empty room, threw up his hands and said, "What did I do?"  Within days the Senate voted to take his power away and, for all intents, he was done.

There are some who will always believe that Joseph Welch's words were what brought down McCarthy, stopping those meaningless, hateful hearings once and for all.  The fact is, for many years before there had been scores of people at work trying to expose the insanity of McCarthy's crusade against Communism--"The enemy within" that had all along been essentially toothless. (In 1952 Jack Anderson and Ronald May wrote "McCarthy: The Man, The Senator, the "Ism", spelling out his tactics, exposing his lies, and warning of the consequences if he wasn't stopped.)

Edward R. Murrow's "See it Now" program on March 9, 1954, broadcast three months before the Welch/McCarthy blow-up, was made up entirely of  footage and quotes by Sen. McCarthy himself--more damning than any second-hand account could have been.  On that same day, President Eisenhower wrote a letter to a friend criticizing McCarthy's approach (later telling an aide that McCarthy was a "pimple on the path to progress").

But what we remember today are Joseph Welch's words, used as a kind of easy shorthand to put a stamp on Joe McCarthy's downfall.

 Throughout our history, we've given certain quotes almost magical attributes in order to condense and clarify the stories behind them.  We want to believe that all it took was a single utterance and--poof!--life changed.

When Lincoln delivered his speech at Gettysburg in 1863, he said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. . ."  He was wrong, of course.  Nearly every schoolkid learned "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . ."   I thought for years that it was the speech that ended the Civil War, and, by rights, it should have.  The speech contained phrases of such heartbreaking beauty, it should have ended any signs of conflict.  In fact, the war went on for more than two years--the final battles fought many months after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. 

In 1933, when FDR told the country during his first Inaugural speech, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself", there was plenty to fear that was much more tangible, but it was exactly what he needed to say at exactly that moment.  Did that one sentence ease the pain of the years to come?  No.  But it's a sentence etched into the American psyche, pulled out as needed, even now.

In 1961, John. F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."   Fifty years later, we're still repeating those words, hoping everyone else is listening.

In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his "I have a dream" speech.  The entire speech is quotable, but he ended with these words:
. . .When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:   Free at last! Free at last!Thank GodAlmighty, we are free at last! 
The speech was widely covered (and was recently called the top American speech of the 20th Century), but racial inequality didn't end on that August day.  Some would say it hasn't ended yet.

In June, 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and shouted "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  Fully half our nation still believes that's all it took to tear down that wall, magically  ending the Cold War and easing any remaining misery.

Magic words.  Enduring words that live on through generations, through the shudderings of history, pristine and precise, owned by their creators without fear of creative editing or plagiarism. 

I thought about these words and their ultimate impact last week as I listened at different times throughout the day to Sen. Bernie Sanders as he stood at a Senate podium delivering his 8 1/2 hour marathon speech, knowing in his heart that the end result would be the same, with or without his mighty efforts.  As I listened, enthralled and grateful (wishing my mom could have been there), I wondered which of his words, if any, would be the magic words still resonating generations from now. 

Bernie Sanders is a plain-spoken Vermont man.  His words are rarely lush or even memorable.  I do not swoon when I hear Bernie speak.  I sit up and take notice.  Bernie had facts, he had figures, he had charts, he had tragic, poignant stories told to him by real people.  He repeated himself and apologized for it.  He wasn't reaching for the perfect sound bite. 

So will it be these lines that end up in Notable Quotes?

Eighty percent of all income in recent years has gone to the top 1 percent. The richer people become much richer, the middle class shrinks. Millions of Americans fall out of the middle class and into poverty.   That is not apparently enough for our friends at the top who have a religious ferocity in terms of greed. They need more, more. It is similar to an addiction. Fifty million is not enough. They need $100 million. One hundred million is not enough; they need 1 billion. One billion is not enough. I am not quite sure how much they need. When will it stop?
Or these?
If there is anything we can say about the American people, we work hard. We, in fact, work longer hours than do the people of any other country, industrialized country, on Earth. We are not a lazy people. We are a hard-working people. If the jobs are there, people will take them. If people have to work 60 hours a week or 70 hours a week, that is what they will do. But we have to rebuild this economy. We do not need tax breaks for billionaires. We need to create jobs for the middle class of this country so that we can put people back to work.
Or maybe these:
We all have our share of addictions. But I would hope that these people who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars will look around them and say: There is something more important in life than the richest people becoming richer when we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Maybe they will understand that they are Americans, part of a great nation which is in trouble today. Maybe they have to go back to the Bible, whatever they believe in, and understand there is virtue in sharing, in reaching out; that you can't get it all.
   I think this is an issue we have to stay on and stay on and stay on. This greed, this reckless, uncontrollable greed is almost like a disease which is hurting this country terribly. How can anybody be proud to say they are a multimillionaire and are getting a huge tax break and one-quarter of the kids in this country are on food stamps? How can one be proud of that? I don't know.
This is good:
I think one simple thing we have to do is tell the crooks on Wall Street--and I use that word advisedly--history will prove that they knew what they were doing. They were dishonest. The business model is fraudulent. There are honest people who occasionally make a mistake, but there are other businesses that are based on fraud and assume they are never going to get caught. When they do get caught, the penalty they have to pay is so little that it is worth it because they end up getting caught 1 out of 10 times, but they make a whole lot of money, and then they pay a fine and somebody goes to jail--very rarely, though--for a year. That is what you are seeing on Wall Street.
 And this:
  So it seems to me we have to defeat this proposal, and that in defeating this, we are going to tell the American people there are at least some of us here who understand what our jobs and obligations are; that is, that we are supposed to represent them, the middle class of the country, and not just wealthy campaign contributors or bow to the interests of the lobbyists who are all over this place.

 Bernie Sanders, fortified with nothing more than a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee, stood on principal last week and spent an entire day talking to his colleagues, talking to the American people, talking to anyone who would listen.  He stood at a podium, never leaving for even a bathroom break, and talked until he could barely get the words out, until he could barely stand.  He wasn't filibustering; there wasn't anything yet to filibuster.  He was giving it all he had, because he believed purely, strongly, that giving a tax break extension to the top one or two percent of income earners was the absolute wrong thing to do.

You might not have known it if you were simply watching mainstream media that day, but the internet universe was erupting, exploding--passing messages all day long about Sen. Sanders and the fact that he was still speaking.  Twitter overloaded a couple of times (the top hashmark being #FiliBernie) even into the next day, as quotes from his speech were relayed. It was one of those moments.

I half expected Bernie to finish with the words of Joseph Welch:  "Have you no sense of decency, sirs, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"  Because if anyone knows from decency, it's Bernie Sanders


  1. You should have been up there with Bernie Sanders for through you, his words will resonant. It still needs to be re-said and re-stated and re-done and re-iterated. Someone needs to listen to the people.
    With this Centrist push and with a Congress focused on robbing the Middle Class of a future, these words do need to resonant and I hear those voices. ... Nedra

  2. We will have few memorable words from the left these days. Sadly, our side puts its faith in statistics and policy-speak.

    We need this:

    (Sorry for the long wraparound link!)

    I found it in one of my LinkedIn groups, and this guy nails it. Does he ever:

    "This preference for stories affects the way we process information, even in today’s high-tech environment. You can read statistics about the reliability of Toyota cars in reliable publications like Consumer Reports, but if your neighbor recounts a detailed horror story about a transmission problem and how he made three trips to the dealer to get it fixed, that one story will outweigh all the numeric data.

    Our brains learn far better from specific examples than abstract information."

    I have been banging this drum for a long time now, and get consistently ignored for my time and trouble. And the left continues to believe in the rightness of its facts and logic carrying the day.

    It does not work. It has never worked. It never will work.

    And I think I'm fed up.

    You might have noticed me not being around much. Not at Dag, not at TPM-aholics, not any of the other places where some of us gather.

    It's no longer satisfying, and I'm beginning to think that the fragmentation and backbiting on the left is its "tragic flaw" and ultimate undoing.

    I'll continue to vote the right way, and work for people here and there who matter, such as Sen. Klobuchar here in MN.

    I'm just pretty much done with the blogging thing. And if most of the left can't see beyond their desires for wish-fulfillment instead of actual governance - while remaining (becoming?) aware of the power of narrative in marketing, well, they can stay that way without me, thankyouverymuch.

    Oh, a couple more little things before I go...

    This: a very important op-ed.

    And I'd think twice about keeping Glen Greenwald in your blogroll. He's from the Cato Institute and is a Libertarian - he is not in any way a friend of progressive ideas.

    I trust you caught Teresa's piece on that over at Dag? I sent her the link it's drawn on. Greenwald is trouble.

  3. Excellent post. I agree with every word! I'm so glad that my wonderful Senator stood with Bernie and voted no on this horrible "compromise"...too bad I'm losing that awesome Senator come January and getting a Tea Party millionaire to replace him :(


  4. Thank you, Nedra. You're right that we need to keep Sanders' words alive. I'm doing what I can, and I hope others are, as well.

    Alan, thanks for the link. (Love that Google commercial) Yes, the story is the thing, and I've said that forever, too. I don't know if you remember when Tom Wolfe came up with "New Journalism", melding aspects of fiction with true life stories, making reporting a kind of art form. In this link it seems he came to regret even talking about it, but it's been with us ever since.

    My very favorite "new journalist" is John McPhee. Every article is a cannot-put-it-down story, because he incorporates all of the elements of a good novel while staying true to the most exquisite reportorial research. (In his book, "The Control of Nature", he predicted--in 1989--the flooding of New Orleans. He didn't predict a hurricane, but he knew without question that there would come a day when the levees wouldn't hold, and he explains why. I literally couldn't put it down.)

    Politicians could take lessons, I agree. Their idea of "story-telling" is "Yesterday I spoke with a woman named Wanda Smedling, a 99er who just received her last check. Wanda. . .blah, blah, blah"

    Alan, I don't know what to say about your decision to stop blogging, except that I understand the frustration. There have been many times when I've felt the same way. You may have noticed that I've been staying away from the controversies at Dagblog lately. They're just too exhausting, and --always a surprise to me--often incredibly childish. But we (and I include you) have a passion for what's going on in our world and I can't imagine any of us staying silent for long.

    I hope you're just taking a break, and don't really mean you're done for good. I would really hate to see that happen. Chins up, fella.

  5. Thank you, Nedra. Thank you, Arielle. (Great names!) I so appreciate your comments. Glad you're both on our side.

    Arielle, I looked at your blog and saw you are from Wisconsin. Losing Sen. Feingold is a great loss for all of us. Never should have happened. And to be replaced by a Tea Partier is like rubbing salt in the wounds. Will this never end?


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