Kamala Harris and a 21st century example of McCarthyism

When I was an undergraduate student at Marquette University, I got an invaluable assignment: Write a thesis about someone who employed illogical arguments but still caused public impact.

History was littered with global despots who fit the bill, but I chose someone closer to home: former Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican whose infamous pursuit of communists gave us “McCarthyism,” one of the evil terms of American politics.

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I read his speeches, listened to audiotapes, read his Senate reports, studied his Senate censure, and talked with political leaders who witnessed his tactics firsthand.

One of those was professor George Reedy, a gracious educator and extraordinary witness to history who saw McCarthy’s campaign up close, as a reporter and then as a press aide to Lyndon B. Johnson.

Reedy told me that what marveled him most was McCarthy’s ability to ask questions or make statements insinuating something evil about a person he was questioning without formally lodging an allegation. In fact, he said, McCarthy might add a qualification to his question, suggesting that wasn’t making an accusation — before implying that very accusation.

McCarthy’s questions whipped up hysteria that marked those he questioned as “guilty as charged” without a shred of evidence.

Those lessons had long faded into the recesses of my memory, until Thursday. That’s when a question-and-answer exchange involving Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisDem pollster says it's 'misstated wisdom' to assume competitive primaries damage presidential nominees Kamala Harris top 2020 choice in poll of women of color Warren unveils bill to lower drug prices by letting government manufacture them MORE (D-Calif.) resurrected them.

In her questioning, during a confirmation hearing for Ronald Vitiello, President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE’s nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Harris asked whether he shares immigrants’ “perception” that ICE spreads fear and mistrust just like the KKK.

The question was carefully constructed. A listener almost certainly believed Sen. Harris was accusing ICE of being like the KKK, while she offered the same qualification that Reedy said was McCarthy’s trademark in questioning.

“I’m very specific about what I’m asking you,” she said. “Are you aware that there’s a perception that ICE is administering its power in a way that is causing fear and intimidation, particularly among immigrants and specifically among immigrants coming from Mexico and Central America?”

Keep that verbal construction in your mind for a second, and let’s go back to McCarthy.

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His crusade against communists made him famous, but his lesser-known targets were homosexuals he wanted to root out from government — a campaign historians dubbed as McCarthy’s “lavender scare.” He argued that homosexuals were as dangerous to national security as communists.  

The art of McCarthy’s nuanced insinuation was on full display during a 1952 speech addressing Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s decision to fire 54 gay workers at the State Department.

“(Acheson) said the State Department is now staffed with good, loyal, clean-living Americans. Well, I don’t quite know what his conception of clean-living Americans happens to be, but, since he made that statement, 54 individuals who had this unusual State Department affliction — homosexuals — were allowed to resign. Fifty-four of those good, clean-living Americans,” McCarthy declared.

A few seconds later, McCarthy stopped short of calling for gays to be eradicated from State, and instead quoted Sens. Kenneth Wherry (R-Neb.) and J. Lister Hill (D-Ala.): “The question is, why worry about getting those individuals out of the State Department?” McCarthy asked. “I think the answer was given by a committee headed by Sen. Wherry, one of our very able senators who died a few weeks ago, and Sen. Hill — a Democrat and a Republican — and they explained very well why those individuals must not be handling top-secret material.”

When Harris sought to make a backhanded comparison between ICE and the KKK, she cited a “perception.” When McCarthy tried to tie gays to communists, he cited a “conception.”

When Harris sought to attribute her concern, she cited a third party: immigrants. When McCarthy attributed his concern, he cited a third party: two fellow senators.

The rhetorical tactics are as similar as they are offensive. Guilt by association or insinuation had no place in the Senate in the 1950s, as lawmakers ultimately realized when they censured McCarthy. It has no place in the Senate in 2018, as I hope Harris’s colleagues soon will realize.

The men and women of ICE don’t operate under white sheets like the KKK members of old. They don badges and bulletproof vests — and assume the risks that come with law enforcement.

They don’t operate from a mandate of hate like the KKK; they operate under the color of laws dutifully passed by Congress in compliance with the U.S. Constitution.

And they don’t deserve a U.S. senator’s demonization, any more than the gay Americans of the 1950s did from McCarthy.

I’m sure both senators, separated by 70 years of history and a difference in party affiliation, had good intentions. Keeping America safe from threats or welcoming to immigrants are noble causes.

It’s the dishonesty of their tactics that deserve our rebuke.

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill’s executive vice president for video.