That was the question Boston attorney Joseph Welch put to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.
I ask it now, as rhetorically as Welch did then, of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.
The “revenge” nonsense of course: McRomney’s last-ditch, last moment attack on President Obama for having asked his supporters not to boo Mitt Romney, but to vote, because, as the President said
living well voting is the best revenge.
Every sane American knows that joke; Mitt Romney does too. But to Romney the candidate, suddenly, this is a sudden moment of clarity about the President. Obama’s voters seek revenge!
It’s hardly a dog whistle anymore.
Rather, the message comes through loud and clear to anyone who cares to listen. Romney’s crowds know what is being said: there’s an angry black man over there exhorting his angry black voters (and their fellow travelers) to seek revenge on proper Americans.
A digression — but not really. I’ve just started to read Gilbert King’s harrowing new book, The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. It tells the story of four young African American men, falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949, and the terrible events that flowed from that lie. One lesson to draw from that story: the civil war between white Americans ended in 1865. The civil war that pitted American whites — under the cover of law, often prosecuted by uniformed agents of the state — against American blacks did not cease until the early 1960s.*
Mitt Romney was seventeen years old when the Civil Rights act was passed. He was thirty-one when his church finally abolished its race-based restrictions. He was a young man through the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s. He knows — or should — the consequences of racial hatred and division.
Another digression: I don’t have a lot of time for John McCain. He’s responded to his defeat in 2008 with none of the honor, gravity or dedication to country that men like George McGovern or Jimmy Carter displayed in like circumstances– or as George Romney did, for that matter. But I’ll give him this: to a great extent he resisted the pull of race-baiting in the last presidential campaign. His running mate wanted to go there, and so did much of his party, but he didn’t. And that’s something, and not a small matter either. So: compare and contrast.
On the Republican side this year there has been an almost ceaseless background drone: Obama is not quite a “real American;” he apologizes; he doesn’t get what this country is about. The theme, blunt and gross at the Limbaugh end of the GOP noise machine, modulated and disguised just enough when it’s Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, is clear enough to anyone who’s lived in these United States long enough to reach the age when it is possible to buy a drink legally, or vote. And I guess I’ve experienced what happens with any kind of constant white noise: it kind of fades into the background, neither (quite) unheard nor consciously noticed. That’s how it works best — a constant presence that never rises to the level that draws a direct reply.
But this last, this “revenge” idiocy, is one provocation too far, at least for me. Mitt Romney knows what he is doing. He’s telling this country that there is a guy over there, the President, who does not legitimately hold his office, who seeks not the best for America, but the revenge of some Americans on others. It doesn’t matter that the claim is risible on its face, that it clearly morphs beyond recognition the actual meaning of Barack Obama’s words. The trope sends a message that Romney wants to deliver. It’s what you say when you can’t shout Ni-Clang! anymore; it’s how you play on the notion — as Politico would have it — that only white Americans can confer– or enjoy — a true mandate to lead.
Here’s the thing: the easy path is to say that this is just what they do. It’s been the GOP line since 1968, and it will continue to be so until we finally salt the fields of that no-longer-Grand, way-too-Old Party. But I can’t leave it there, however much I understand that the hunger for power trumps all else. Mitt Romney isn’t a party. He isn’t a movement, or an institution, or anything but one man. He owns his acts, his words, his choices. And he has chosen to close out his campaign with a moment in his stump speech that plays on the worst impulses in American history.
Has he no shame?
At this sorry end of a seven year pursuit of the White House, the question answers itself.
*You could argue that it hasn’t ended yet — but I would say that there is a difference between sporadic acts and the sustained and legally protected violence of the pre-1964 era. But even so, the fact that this is still even a discussion is something to fuel both anger and despair.
Image: Alfred Dedreux, Pug Dog in an Armchair, 1857 (Yeah. I do know I’ve used this before. But it works, OK?)