Republican presidential candidates have called each other “lazy,” “liars,” “low energy,” “nasty,” “con man,” and made direct references to the size of their fingers, implying the size other parts of the anatomy. As the American presidential campaign heats up, the role of these “zingers” becomes more and more evident. In a campaign reduced to sound bites and “gotcha” videos, one sentence or offhand remark is all that remains of debates on issues affecting millions of lives. The back and forth of ideas and presentations of coherent policy positions have been reduced to quips and gag lines meant to amuse the public. One-upmanship has replaced elegant phrases much as Twitter has replaced logical sentence construction.
But zingers can leave their marks on political campaigns, and even change history. An example from recent politics occurred during the 1988 vice-presidential debate between the Republican candidate, Senator Dan Quayle, and the Democrat Senator Lloyd Bentsen. The question posed by the moderator was about the possibility that the eventual vice-president would become president. Since World War II, half the vice-presidents have become president by succession or election. Quayle, 41 years old at the time, was on the defensive about his suggested inexperience.
In response to the question, Quayle asked himself “What kind of qualifications does Dan Quayle have to be president?” Quayle replied: “I have far more experience than many others who have sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.”
When asked to comment, Bentsen, without hesitation, and speaking sonorously as a 67 year-old, four-time elected senator to the callow Quayle, replied: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” to thunderous shouts and applause from the audience.
Democrats repeatedly used this exchange during the campaign, emphasizing that if elected Quayle would become only a heartbeat away from being president, as Vice-President Lyndon Johnson had become after JFK’s assassination. In spite of Bentsen’s zinger, the Democrats were soundly defeated in the November election, but the phrase “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” has become part of campaign lore and is occasionally used and paraphrased around the world.
The most devastating zinger, however, was not part of an election campaign, but was instrumental in stopping one of the darkest periods in American history, the McCarthy era.
The rise of anti-Communist fears in the U.S. in the early 1950’s revolved around Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Beginning with a speech in 1950 in which he stated that there were “205” Communist Party members and sympathizers in the U.S. State Department, the demagogic senator began a Red Scare campaign within the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that touched a nerve with the general public and frightened members of Congress.
During the Subcommittee’s televised hunt for subversives in the Army, McCarthy revealed material he had agreed to keep secret. He overstepped his bounds in publicizing information about a young lawyer, Fred Fisher Jr.; he had gone over the edge. Many of the people McCarthy chased were blacklisted and lost their jobs, even if the evidence against them was circumstantial. He had that much power. But this time he had agreed not to go public. During the hearing, McCarthy was dueling with Joseph N. Welch, a distinguished Boston lawyer who was a partner in Fisher’s firm. It is worth quoting Welch at length here.
“Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad…I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think that I am a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.”
After McCarthy tried to form some reply, Welch unloaded the famous questions: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?”
While it cannot be proven that Welch’s zinger ended the McCarthy era, there is no question that it was a turning point. The Republican Party disavowed him; he was censured by the Senate. President Eisenhower, in his inimitable syntax, said: “McCarthyism is McCarthywasm.” McCarthy’s era crashed with Welch’s simple questions.
Watching the current presidential debates and the rise of populism in Europe, I am reminded of Welch’s courage and the rapidity with which he punctured the populist’s balloon. Is that possible today? I’m not sure that any one phrase or question can turn things around, but it is worth remembering how it once happened and how the concept of decency was once important.