Sixty-three years ago tonight, Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly went to war in defense of an idea. That idea is the United States of America.
That defense on CBS Television's news program See It Now necessarily meant declaring war on one of our occasional demagogues who rise to the level of existential threat. In 1954, that demagogue was Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R, Wisconsin). His particular -ism, involving a witch hunt that exploited people's intense fear of communism early on in the Cold War, came to bear his name -- McCarthyism.
McCarthyism looked to be a war on communist subversion by any means necessary. What McCarthyism actually was was an assault against our American foundational idea.
We always seem to forget that America is not a nation -- it is a country and an idea. A country organized around an idea.
NATURALLY, we never exactly (or even roughly) live up to the idea -- the ideal -- but the point is that we keep aiming for it. In that respect, it's like Christianity. Yes, you're a sinner, but you repent and keep trying to do better.
The times when this country truly is in peril is when we lose the narrative. With McCarthyism, we twisted the narrative and used that idea against itself, as a justification for cynical subversion. The Reds weren't the only subversives in this national morality play. Who knew?
Now we struggle for control of the narrative of another American morality play. McCarthyism has become Trumpism, after our latest existential threat, President Donald J. Trump.
And I wonder whether this time we've thrown away the script -- the founding ideal -- altogether.
As Ed Murrow said, our defense is not of one party or another, but instead it is of the truth. I think we have a steeper hill to climb than that of 1954. In 1954, Americans had many questions, but No. 1 on the list didn't seem to be Pontius Pilate's -- "What is truth?"
I'LL CLOSE with Murrow's final words on that historic telecast. They're better than any I'll ever write. Apply to our present national emergency as needed.
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.
The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it -- and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Good night, and good luck.