The Stain Remains

Around the country he flew, reckless and audacious, stopping long enough to make a new charge, to exhibit a new list, a good newsworthy press conference at the airport, hail-fellow well met with the reporters, and then on to the next stop, the emptiness of the charge never catching up with him, the American press exploited in its false sense of objectivity (if a high official said something, then it was news, if not fact, and the role of the reporter was to print it straight without commenting, without assaulting the credibility of the incredulous; that was objectivity). It was like a circus; he was always on the move, his figures varied, his work was erratic and sloppy, he seemed to have no genuine interest in any true nature of security. It sometimes seemed as if he too were surprised by the whole thing, how easy it was, how little resistance he met, and so he hurtled forward to newer, larger charges. But if they did not actually stick, and they did not, his charges had an equally damaging effect: they poisoned. Where there was smoke, there must be fire. He wouldn’t be saying those things unless there was something to it. And so the contamination remained after the facts, or lack of them, evaporated; long after the specifics had faded into obscurity, the stain remained.

Although it sounds like it could have been written last week, that description is from David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, a fifty-year old landmark book about the Kennedy administration’s responsibility for our involvement in Vietnam. The paragraph is about one Joseph Raymond McCarthy, notorious senator from Wisconsin(!) and one of the more infamous figures of the 1950’s in the U.S.

Two things came to mind as I read it: one, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and two, blowhard liars who attack others to bring attention to themselves all sound alike.

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