Your CNN Republican Presidential Candidate Debate Sneak Preview

Somebody is going to do this to Donald Trump tonight:

The only question is who, and perhaps how many. It worked before, and it could work again. It may be too late for this strategem, though.

If you don’t recognize the incident, one of the first live TV moments to enter history and have a major impact on national politics, here is the background:

It came at the height of the Cold War, and the fear of Communist Russia was as palpable as it was toxic. Being publicly associated with the Communist Party was a ticket to personal and professional destruction, and many politicians wielded the accusation as a weapon of mass destruction.  The Hollywood Blacklist was the archetype of many such lists that kept many Americans who were socialists or merely liberals virtually unemployable in the military, the State Department, police and businesses. Dark times.

Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy used red-baiting to become the most famous, polarizing, popular, controversial—and powerful— American politician not named Eisenhower.  In 1954, two commercial TV networks broadcast live the hearings investigating McCarthy’s allegations against Army officers, and the counter-allegations that McCarthy and his aide, Roy Cohn, had pressured the Army to give preferential treatment to a Cohn’s  friend, later revealed to be  his  gay lover. (See: “Angels in America”)  80 million Americans watched the first ever  broadcast of Congressional hearings, riveted.

Joseph Welch, a prominent Boston attorney, agreed to serve as the Army’s legal counsel in the hearings. He knew, as the GOP contenders should know, that the only effective way to shame and expose a bully and a miscreant is to do it directly to his face. Welch waited for days, playing the quiet, respectful professional as McCarthy ranted and grandstanded. Then he saw his chance.

On June 9,  1954,  McCarthy declared that Fred Fisher, a young lawyer from Welch’s own law firm, had once been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, a civil rights group that J. Edgar Hoover had called a communist front because its attorneys had represente suspected communists. Welch, choking with emotion, it seemed, indignantly defended his colleague while deriding McCarthy:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. … Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The chamber’s audience applauded. The public’s infatuation with McCarthy was shattered, and emboldened by the collapse of public support for him,  McCarthy’s colleagues in the Senate censured him for inappropriate conduct. McCarthy’s power evaporated, and the anti-Communist hysteria joined him in a shadowy corner of U.S. history.

Accounts of Welch’s master stroke always call it “spontaneous,” but it was not. Like any canny lawyer, Welch was prepared. He had his words memorized, rehearsed and ready, and he had even set a trap: Welch had already publicly acknowledged Fisher’s involvement in the National Lawyers Guild. He assumed McCarthy would bring it up, and  he could hardly be dumbstruck that the Senator would repeat what he himself had acknowledged. But Welch also knew most of the public was unaware that he had set a trap, so when McCarthy mentioned Fisher, Welch took aim and blasted away.

Will the same tactic work on Trump? It should: it would have worked in the first debate. Now, it may not, because many Welches will not be as effective as a single one, and I would not be surprised if several of Trump’s competitors will have a Welchism rehearsed. It also won’t work if the wrong Welch jumps in first, or if he blows his delivery. (Welch was quite an actor.)

We shall see. If someone doesn’t at least try it, none of these 15 non-Trumps are  smart enough to be President.

17 thoughts on “Your CNN Republican Presidential Candidate Debate Sneak Preview

  1. I did not know that iconic moment had been rehearsed–fascinating! Reminds me of the Rosa Parks moment, another signal event that had some planning behind it.

    So, who’s best placed to pull the Welch trigger? Carson? Surely not Christie or Cruz!

    • The Welch model requires a non-agressive agent or apparently so. Kasich and Carson would be perfect. Rubio. Walker, even low energy Bush. Christie and Cruz are the attack dogs—both are much smarter and more rhetorically nimble than Trump, and good lawyers, but they can’t do a Welch. Neither could Rand Paul. Fiorina could, because she’s the lone woman.

  2. Much easier said than done. As Jack acknowledges, just calling him out for being a jerk will not work unless Trump opens the door for it. The reason it worked for Welch is that McCarthy was acting like McCarthy at his worst. Trump is likely to be on good behavior in the debate.

    Jack – When you say it would have worked in the first debate, my question is when and how. From what I recall Trump was civil to all and did not provide fodder for such a moment in the first debate.

  3. It’s too late. Appeals for decency, or to a sense of decency, are fossils of a culture of an earlier era – much like apologies (and demands for apologies) are quickly becoming. Welcome to the new era of rudeness; incivility; personal attacks; snideness; smug, arrogant put-downs, and more laying-of-guilt-by-association (owing to group identity obsession and group litmus tests) than ever polluted political maneuvering during the Red Scare days.

  4. Oh, it would need to be set up as a semi planned effort. Just 2 candidates… Maybe Fiorina to throw a line that Trump just can’t keep from being a boor about, then a Carson or even Bush to hit the ball out of the park.

    But Trump will be expecting it and he’ll just rely on short attention spans and a general lack of the populace caring and play the “everyone is ganging up on me” card.

    • Rand Paul delivered the Welch, though. He blew it a bit, talking about Trump rather than to Trump, but it still worked…Trump made a lame joke that was uncomfortable, and I think it took him out of the debate…he was very passive after that, and I really think Paul’s early Welch is what softened Trump up for Carly.

  5. For the life of me I don’t remember what Sen. McCarthy had to do with the ‘Hollywood Blacklist.’ .Also wasn’t he partially vindicated by the Venona decrypts?

    • He was not vindicated by the fact that there were, in fact, Communists in high places. McCarthy’s use of guilt by association and lies (waving papers as “proof” that had nothing of the sort), accusing critics of being Commie sympathizers…none of this was vindicated nor can be.

      • Thanks, That saves me the trouble of going through the book ‘Blacklisted by History’ Again. Forgot most of it. If you like I can send it to you along with the mp3-CD audiobook free of charge.It’s 23 hours long and guaranteed to cure insomnia. 🙂

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