Sunday, February 12, 2006


(this column will appear in the 2/16/06 THE ALBANY JOURNAL)

“They believe in the fundamental American freedoms, and in Sen. Joseph McCarthy they see a man who would destroy those freedoms in the name of defending them. Because McCarthy is a liar and a bully, surrounded by yes-men, recklessly calling his opponents traitors, he commands great power for a time. He destroys others with lies, and then is himself destroyed by the truth.”

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times review of “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

I managed to make it to the movie theater the last night it showed “Good Night and Good Luck,” the semi-documentary about CBS News, Edward R. Murrow, and Joseph McCarthy. The understated black and white film delivered a powerful message of the dangers posed by demagogues in high places who garner power and fame by exaggerating fears of an insidious enemy. Although the movie opened with good critical reviews and has an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it isn’t a popular hit, grossing about $28 million in 19 weeks (compared, for instance, to a commercial movie like Big Momma’s House 2, which has grossed over $54 million in three weeks).

There was only one person in the theater when I walked in at the scheduled starting time, and I jokingly asked her for permission to sit in her theater and watch the movie. She laughed and said “yes.” By the time the commercials and previews had run their course, there were five of us watching one of the two most important movies released in 2005, the other being Syriana.

Not coincidentally, George Clooney is integrally involved with both films, and he is nominated for an Oscar for supporting actor in Syriana along with his screen writing and directing nominations for Good Night, and Good Luck. With the exception of the occasional foray into mindless entertainment-- Oceans 11 and 12, for instance-- Clooney tends to attach himself to movies that matter outside of Hollywood cash registers. Whether it’s the offbeat, such as the modern tale of Ulysses in O Brother Where Art Thou, or the deadly serious, such as the nuclear armed terrorist in The Peacemaker, Clooney’s films often provoke thought.

It’s confusing these days to separate fact from fiction, history from current events. It was impossible not to see the obvious modern day parallels as I watched 1954 film clips showing McCarthy’s vicious bullying of ordinary Americans suspected (by him and no one else) of Communist sympathies, such as the poor, wretched, painfully honest Annie Moss, the black cafeteria worker in the Pentagon who was later assigned to carry messages from the military’s code room.

Unfortunately for the continued vitality of our basic freedoms of speech, privacy, and due process, we don’t have an Edward R. Murrow in our midst today, capable of bringing down a nationally prominent bully (and we now have so many!) Not that there aren’t courageous people in the media willing to skewer President Bush and other top officials, damning them with their own words by having the temerity to air video clips of their own speeches. The past few years, Jon Stewart and Michael Moore have led the fight to tell truth to and about power, but the former appears only on basic cable’s Comedy Channel (as he is quick to point out in self-deprecation) and the latter has been marginalized by effective use of the “big lie” technique. Last Fall Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan attempted to slander John Murtha by linking him to Michael Moore:

“... Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said that it is ‘baffling that [Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha] is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party.’”

CNN, November 18, 2005.

Probably the closest we have to a mainstream media Murrow is Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press who last Sunday had members of the House and Senate on his program to discuss the NSA spying program, its implications for freedom, and the machinations and outright lies of President Bush in his public speeches about domestic spying.

What struck me most about Russert’s NSA show guests-- both Democrats and Republicans-- is that even when confronted with simple, direct questions, they had no qualms in telling obvious lies or refusing to answer. Former South Dakota Democratic Senator Tom Daschle, asked if he was wrong in voting to authorize President Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein in 2002, ducked, saying he wasn’t going to revisit that issue. Daschle could have frankly discussed the tragic October 2002 vote when he was Senate Majority Leader while the Democrats still controlled one branch of Congress. That grant of authority to President Bush has ended up costing this country so much in the last three years: lives, maimed bodies, hundreds of billions of dollars, and America’s credibility and goodwill.

For his part, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was confronted with a video clip of these words from President Bush on April 20, 2004, two years after he turned the NSA loose with warrantless domestic wiretaps:

“Secondly, there are such things as roving wiretaps. Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.”

When Russert asked Roberts if the President had lied (he used a nicer word), Roberts himself fibbed in trying to avoid the issue by saying that the President was referring to “domestic” wiretapping. Russert quickly corrected him, noting that the President made no such distinction in his speech, and Roberts slithered away from the question.

When I visited the MSNBC website in researching this column, I noted that they have a place where viewers can submit questions to be asked guests on upcoming programs. Here are my four, and you can feel free to submit yours. After all, it’s our freedom they are trying to take away, just as Wisconsin Republican Senator Joe McCarthy tried to do 52 years ago:

On NSA spying, ask the next Congressman or Senator: "Are you saying that Al Qaida has you so scared that you are willing to give up Americans' freedom from invasion of privacy, guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment?"

On Iraq: "If the purpose of this invasion was to install a democracy in Iraq, then shouldn't we allow Iraqis to vote on whether American troops should stay or leave?"

On freedom and democracy in the Middle East: "Doesn't the electoral victory of Hamas prove that even if democracy is brought to the Middle East, that doesn't mean the end of religious fanaticism, state sponsored violence, or terrorism?"

On Jack Abramoff and Washington corruption: "Congressman (or Senator), wouldn't you agree that if we banned all private fund raising, banned all private contributions and gifts of any kind to candidates for office, treated them all as bribes, and instead publicly financed all federal elections, we could effectively end all of the abuses under the current system of PACs and lobbyists, and the result would be a Congress devoted primarily to the public interest and able to work full time on the people's business?


Blogger James Finkelstein (Ga.) said...

testing the comments section

10:28 PM  

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