Editor’s Note: Charles Kaiser is the author of “1968 in America,” “The Gay Metropolis” and, most recently, “The Cost of Courage.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Last week, Khizr Khan, a Harvard-trained Gold Star father, said that Donald Trump did not understand the meaning of true sacrifice.
Charles Kaiser: At a pivotal moment in American history, Khan's comment may be the reason it also becomes a righteous one.
Sixty-two years ago, Joseph Welch interrupted Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy when he was in the middle of smearing Fred Fisher, a lawyer in Welch’s office. Welch stopped the communist-hunting McCarthy in his tracks on national television.
“Until this moment, senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” said Welch. “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
This was the turning point in the hysteria that McCarthy had whipped up. With half a dozen sentences, the rumpled Harvard lawyer had pierced the McCarthy bubble of fear, which had paralyzed the country for years.
Father of slain Muslim soldier takes on Trump
It is possible that when Americans look back 50 years from now at the present ghastly moment, it will be another speech by another middle-aged Harvard lawyer – this one named Khizr Khan – that will be remembered as the turning point in the national hysteria over Trump. Khan is the father of a genuine American war hero, and it fell to him to deliver the speech at the Democratic National Convention, which captured genuine American values more beautifully than anyone else could:
“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?” Khan asked Trump. “Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America – you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
When asked Sunday by George Stephanopoulos what he had sacrificed, Trump replied that he had employed “thousands and thousands of people.” Then he attacked Khan’s wife for remaining silent during her husband’s speech.
“You have sacrificed nothing” is quickly accruing the same power as “Have you no decency?” Seventeen Gold Star families made the connection directly Monday when they said that Trump’s stance “is about a sense of decency.”
“Your recent comments regarding the Khan family were repugnant, and personally offensive to us,” said the families of fallen warriors. “When you question a mother’s pain, by implying that her religion, not her grief, kept her from addressing an arena of people, you are attacking us. When you say your job building buildings is akin to our sacrifice, you are attacking our sacrifice. You are not just attacking us, you are cheapening the sacrifice made by those we lost. You are minimizing the risk our service members make for all of us. This goes beyond politics. It is about a sense of decency. That kind decency you mock as ‘political correctness.’ We feel we must speak out and demand you apologize to the Khans, to all Gold Star families, and to all Americans for your offensive, and frankly anti-American, comments.”
If there was any doubt that there was any difference between McCarthy’s henchmen and Trump’s, it was obliterated when Trump ally Roger Stone went even deeper into the gutter by alleging on Twitter that Khan was working for the Muslim Brotherhood. A few hours later, he withdrew that abomination.
But history is repeating itself here in more ways than one. There is a direct link between Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump – the rancid Roy Cohn. This New York pit bull was the Wisconsin senator’s key deputy in his communist witch hunt. He was also Trump’s first mentor and teacher – and one of the most evil men who ever lived. In an interview in 2005, Trump explained their bromance this way: “Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy. He brutalized for you.”
It has now been 58 weeks since Trump began his nonstop brutalization of American life, with his wild attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, disabled people and Democrats. The press has counterpunched from time to time, but far too often it has been Trump’s eager collaborator. Last March, mediaQuant estimated that Trump had garnered nearly $2 billion in free media attention – more than twice as much as Clinton at that stage of the campaign.
Last spring, CBS Chairman Les Moonves was quite frank about the symbiotic relationship between his network and the Trump campaign: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Moonves added that the campaign was a “circus,” but “the money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” Never has a corporate chief gloated more openly about how much he values profits over the duties of citizenship.
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Now it is time for the press to remember a very different kind of CBS legend – Edward R. Murrow. A couple of months before Welch’s speech, Murrow, one of America’s greatest radio and television reporters, spoke the words about McCarthy that now apply directly to every journalist who is writing about Trump:
“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
Today we are at a pivotal moment in American history. With the help of Khan, it is still possible that one day we will also remember it as an exceptionally righteous one.
Charles Kaiser is the author of “1968 in America,” “The Gay Metropolis” and, most recently, “The Cost of Courage.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.