Uncommon Decency: a brief history

By: Bill Whaley
20 January, 2021

“At long last, have you no sense of decency, sir?” Joseph Welch, during the Army-McCarthy Hearings.

Frequently, during the Trump years, as the President ridiculed both opponents and one-time loyalists, I thought of his 50s era heritage as product of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House on Un-American activities. McCarthy accused one and all of guilt by association as cold war fellow travelers of communists. Hollywood screenwriters and directors particularly suffered the slings and arrows of this travesty. While Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada, a Catholic and virulent anti-communist exercised the prerogatives of the puppet master from above, attorney Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s devil from below whispered in the Senator’s ear.

(At the time and later, actor Ronald Reagan took advantage of cold war hysteria to advance his career at the expense of the accused commies in Hollywood and from Sacramento he later slurred the hippies similarly in the sixties during the Berkeley riots he provoked.)

On a six-week sabbatical in Manhattan, circa 1978, I dined at a restaurant one night two tables away from Roy Cohn and his two sweet looking blond laddies. My companion pointed out the bulbous nose and pale pock-marked face, the epitome of evil manifested in the ugly mug. Her father, an apolitical but well-known musician with show-biz friends, had been accused of “guilt by association” and fled the country to earn a living abroad.

That same Manhattan visit I dropped by the ground floor of “Trump Tower,” the gaudy gold and black phallus, and saw the elevator that Trump rode down, that trajectory of terror, from whence he announced his candidacy and slurred our friends from Mexico. Later I heard how Cohn had laid hands on Trump and taught him the evils of the trade, how to attack, attack, attack, creating big and little lies, giving opponents no quarter.

Senator McCarthy went into sharp decline during the fifties when U.S. Army attorney Joseph Welch said at the McCarthy hearings on television “At long last, have you no sense of decency sir.” The power of that brief remark ignited the television audience, who repudiated McCarthy’s reign of terror and the Senator died at age 48 of hepatitis and/or alcoholism.

Welch’s remark about “decency,” its profound eloquence and power haunted me all through the Trumpian reign of domestic terror. I kept waiting for someone to speak up…and then realized that Biden, the quiet man in the basement, was this era’s answer to Trump’s attempt to return to McCarthyism, understood as the rise of white domestic terror per the moribund Confederacy.

So Biden, the exemplar of uncommon decency ignited the overthrow of the Trumpian terror that nearly cumulated in demise of the Republic on January 6. Since 74 million Americans voted for Trump, Biden’s 80 million allies must immediately begin by word and deed to prove that decency works to improve lives for all the people.

If black people and Native Americans can learn to love America despite the racism and genocide directed at them, then we must learn to either love our misguided brothers and sisters of the right or learn how to respond with uncommon decency by wearing a mask as symbol of our care for each other. Perhaps the Town of Taos could find a way to express love for our neighbors from the villages and appreciation for visitors who tithe to our merchants by opening up public facilities for the dispensations of universal need.

Today, this nervous observer will skip the inauguration (wake me when it’s over!) and go skiing. At TSV I take my lessons with the uncommonly decent Jean Mayer of the Hotel St. Bernard, who always says, to ski well, “You must make love to the mountain.”