Fifty years ago this week, TV transmitted a sound bite heard down through the ages: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
The words were spoken at the Army-McCarthy hearings, the speaker was Army attorney Joseph N. Welch and the antecedent was Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. Welch's dramatic j'accuse quickly became audiovisual shorthand for the downfall of McCarthy. To many, it was a turning point in U.S. history -- the symbolic end of the McCarthy era -- and historians have since debated whether it was a spontaneous outburst or a premeditated ambush.
The setting for the exchange was certainly a work of epochal improvisation -- the first political-cum-televisual spectacle in American history, an open-ended docudrama that ran from April 22 until June 17, 1954. Ostensibly, the hearings had been convened to investigate a bizarre series of charges and countercharges between the Army and McCarthy -- the demonic incarnation of domestic anti-communism. The intra-governmental brawl was incited by, of all things, the daily duties and weekend furloughs of an Army private named G. David Schine, formerly a consultant on McCarthy's staff and a close friend of Roy M. Cohn, McCarthy's chief counsel. The Army claimed Cohn was trying to "blackmail" the military into easing his friend's tour of duty. McCarthy claimed the Army was holding Schine "hostage" to thwart investigations into its laggard security practices.
In performance terms, the hearings pitted McCarthy's erratic moods and grating drone against Welch's serene manner and smooth eloquence. The afternoon of June 9 brought the emotional climax of the hearings, the famous exchange between Welch and McCarthy over the alleged subversive background of Fred Fisher, a young lawyer at Hale and Dorr, Welch's Boston firm.
Ignoring a pre-hearing agreement not to broach the matter, McCarthy suggested that Fisher harbored communist sympathies because of his past membership in an alleged communist front group, the National Lawyers Guild.
"Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," Welch responded, giving a hint of what was to come.
In tones of sadness and disbelief, he recalled how he had initially invited Fisher to work on the case but, anticipating a smear job, ultimately decided to spare the 32-year-old Fisher the exposure. Welch next recited lines whose three-part harmonics sound suspiciously canned:
"It is true he is still with Hale and Dorr.
"It is true that he will continue to be with Hale and Dorr.
"It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you."
When McCarthy kept after Fisher, Welch struggled to control his simmering fury. "Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator," he implored. "You've done enough." Then, he asked: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
McCarthy blustered on briefly, until Welch cut him off and asked the committee to "call the next witness." For a moment, there was silence. Then a wave of applause rolled through the Senate caucus room.
At that time and ever since, skeptics have suspected that Welch had precooked his lines. "It was an act from start to finish," Cohn claimed. Indeed, a lawyer as crafty as Welch might have anticipated McCarthy's misstep in attacking Fisher, prepared a lethal reply and then waited to spring the trap. To some, the slashing comeback sounded too polished to be extemporaneous, the patterns of speech too poetic to be unscripted.
Welch always denied there had been a setup, and, to me, the best evidence of his spontaneous eloquence as an orator-at-law comes from earlier in the hearings. On May 28, when ABC interviewed Welch and committee counsel Ray Jenkins about what Welch called a "constitutional crisis," Welch said, in a familiar three-part delivery:
"Each of us recognizes it.
"Each of us is sure that it is a serious thing.
"And, I believe, each of us is extremely modest about any ability we may have, Mr. Jenkins, in the solution of that crisis."
The vocal patterns were a Welch trademark, but the lines, on both occasions, were off the cuff.
Rehearsed or not, Welch's more-in-sorrow-than-anger attack on McCarthy on June 9 was imprinted as the indelible catchphrase of the Army-McCarthy hearings, endlessly replayed in archival documentaries and eventually even sampled by the rock band REM in a 1993 tune titled "Exhuming McCarthy." The words still echo loudly in the fantasies of anyone near a microphone at a televised congressional hearing -- grandstanding politicians, ambitious lawyers and subpoenaed witnesses, all straining to summon a golden sound bite for a media moment of ad-libbed eloquence and historic weight.
Thomas Doherty is the author of "Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture" (Columbia University Press, 2003).