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Echoes of McCarthyism From Sarah Palin

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Try this on for size: Palinism. What is it? It is an updated version of McCarthyism, which takes its name from the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin liar, demagogue and drunk, and means, according to Wikipedia, "reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks on the character or patriotism of political adversaries." As far as we know, Sarah Palin is not a drunk.

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But she certainly shares McCarthy's other attributes -- and this one as well: the ability to drive the debate. In McCarthy's day, it was anti-communism coupled with national security, and it hardly mattered that he frequently did not have his facts straight. He got huge amounts of attention anyway.

With Palin, the subject is health care, which in many ways is the Red Menace of our day and lends itself to a kind of political pornography. For sheer disregard of the facts, her statement about President Obama's "death panel" has to rank with McCarthy's announcement that "I have here in my hand a list of 205" (or 57 or 72 or whatever) names of communists in the State Department. They were both false -- McCarthy's by commission, Palin's probably by omission. She rarely knows her facts.

The most depressing aspects of McCarthy's career were not just the excesses of the man himself but the refusal of others -- mainly his fellow Republicans -- to either rein him in or defend his victims. Now we are seeing something similar with Palin. Say what you will about any of the health-care proposals, not one of them suggests a "death panel" empowered to withhold medical services from the aged or those with disabilities. To suggest that one exists is reprehensible. To state it outright is either boldly demagogic or just plain loopy.

Yet, you can beat the bushes to a fine powder and find only two Republicans of note -- Sens. Johnny Isakson and Lisa Murkowski -- who had the courage or the decency to tell Palin that she doesn't know what she's talking about. Certainly, this was not the case with Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who in fact virtually seconded Palin's charge. This is not just because Gingrich himself can be casual with the facts but also because his urge to be politically expedient often overwhelms his convictions.

Something similar could be said about Sen. Charles Grassley, a key Senate Republican on health care. He mouthed a limp echo of Palin's lie and then boldly looked the other way. Sadly, the list of the meek includes Palin's Geppetto, Sen. John McCain, who fashioned her out of political desperation and has yet to whittle her down to size. In an update of the folk tale, I'd like to think that whenever he praises Palin, his own nose grows.

As with McCarthyism, Palinism is a product of its times. McCarthy exploited the public's fear of communism and communists. Not only were they abroad, but they were here in America -- spies, fellow travelers, pinkos, apologists, intellectuals and short, bespectacled minorities. It was their very ubiquity and invisibility that made them so dangerous.

Health-care reform provides Palin the same opportunity. The klutziness of Obama's effort -- people think they know what they can lose but have no idea of what they can gain -- again raises the specter of invisible forces that will take but not give, dictate but not listen, tax but not provide. But as is almost always the case with right-wing populists, the shooter has aimed at her own foot. Palin's "death panel" remarks either killed or helped kill the proposal to offer end-of-life counseling. The victims will be the poor, the uninformed and the ideologically blind who will find themselves unable to make a graceful exit. The affluent have their living wills and such. The poor have only their grief.

McCarthy's career was mercifully short. He made his famous speech in 1950 and was censured by the Senate four years later. By 1957, he was dead. His rise was a product of a now-antiquated newspaper culture, but his fall was abetted by the advent of TV. Americans looked and were appalled. He was finished.

Palin, as wholesome as McCarthy was not, is ready-made for television. Still, she has gone from a 57 percent favorable rating soon after McCain picked her as his running mate to a current 39 percent -- a negative landslide of justifiable proportions. Before she fades into fringedom, she will do one bad and one good thing -- hurt the very people she supposedly champions and expose the appalling opportunism of the Republican leaders.

I have in my hand a list of their names.

cohenr@washpost.com


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