It was in a Senate hearing room in Washington in 1954 when the bow-tied Boston attorney Joseph Welch asserted “a sense of decency” as an American ideal.
In the early 1950s, in the midst of the Cold War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had almost single-handedly created a second red scare by claiming, with little evidence, that the federal government and Army had been infiltrated with communist sympathizers. His obsession was the “deep state” of the Eisenhower era.
For four years, McCarthy conducted investigations and made reckless accusations. On June 9, 1954, he sat across from Welch, who was serving as special counsel for the Army. When McCarthy insinuated that a young attorney, an associate of Welch, had communist sympathies, Welch went after him.
“Until this moment, senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty and your recklessness,” Welch said. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator, you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
I consider it one of the great moments in American history because it spoke to a human ideal — the need to be decent, no matter your politics, no matter your creed, no matter your mission. In all things, employ decency.
That moment has come to mind many times in recent years, as national politics became more depraved than decent. I heard echoes of Welch’s takedown of McCarthy Thursday evening as I watched 81-year-old Rep. Steny Hamilton Hoyer, from Mechanicsville in Southern Maryland, explain to her Republican defenders why freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a follower of the QAnon conspiracy cult, needed to be marginalized by the House of Representatives.
Hoyer entered politics as a Maryland state senator in 1967. He became president of the Senate in 1975, then left Annapolis for Washington in 1981. He’s been in Congress ever since, and now House majority leader again.
Thursday night, in a light gray suit, Hoyer stood to speak in favor of stripping Greene of her committee assignments, something the Republicans had failed to do, and he did it with as much fire as I’ve ever seen from him.
“I have had the great honor of serving this body for 40 years and in that time,” Hoyer said, his voice rising, “I have never encountered a situation like the one before us now, where a member has made such vile and hurtful statements, engaged in the harassment of colleagues and expressed support for political violence.”
Hoyer looked across the aisle at Republicans who had expressed indignation that Democrats would get into their business by depriving Greene of her committee assignments. “To do nothing,” Hoyer fired back, “would be an abdication of our moral responsibility to our colleagues, to the House, to our values, to the truth and to our country.”
Hoyer had listened to Greene’s pleadings and he had listened to Republican representatives complain about the process of punishing her for statements she made prior to entering Congress.
“I have heard little from Republicans about the horrific statements made by [Greene] making threats of violence against Democratic elected officials … Indeed, there seems to be much silence when it comes to her incitement of political violence. I’ve heard too much about process and not enough about accountability.”
Greene, Hoyer noted, had offered no apology for her inflammatory comments about school shootings or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, no apologies for anti-Semitic or Islamophobic remarks.
“I urge my colleagues to look at this image,” Hoyer said, and suddenly he had a large poster in his hands, a blowup of a posting from Greene’s campaign Facebook page. It showed Greene in sunglasses and wielding a semi-automatic rifle, next to her the faces of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and below them the words, “Squad’s Worst Nightmare.”
Hoyer walked the poster down the aisle and held it so Republicans could see it.
“They’re not ‘The Squad,’” he said. “They’re Ilhan. They’re Alexandria. They’re Rashida. They’re people! They are our colleagues. And yes, you may have disagreements, but … this is an AR-15 in the hands of Miss Greene. This was on Facebook just a few months ago.”
Hoyer kept his eyes on Republicans and pointed at them.
“AR-15,” he said again. “Squad’s. Worst. Nightmare. Is this what it was intended to do, that each one of these ladies would have a nightmare about someone with a gun?
“I urge my colleagues to look at that image and tell me what message you think it sends. … Here she is, armed with a deadly assault rifle, pointing it toward three Democratic members.
“Yes, some people are having nightmares. And some people, who wanted to give other people nightmares, committed sedition and broke into the House of Representatives [on Jan. 6] and tried to stop us from electing a president of the United States.”
Hoyer described other statements made or endorsed by Greene calling for violence against Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He quoted Republican senators who condemned Greene.
“My colleagues across the aisle,” Hoyer said, his voice calm again, “have the opportunity today to reclaim their party from the dangerous cancer of QAnon and violent conspiracy theories that promote and demonstrably resulted in sedition and insurrection.”
Then he tried to make the case that marginalizing Greene was unprecedented but necessary — and not a partisan matter, a tough sell to 199 Republicans, including Maryland’s Andy Harris, who soon would vote against the resolution to penalize her.
“This is about principle,” Hoyer said, looking at the Republicans again, his words sounding old-school but earnest in the cynical, post-Trump, post-riot atmosphere of the Capitol. “You can shake your heads as much as you want. This is not about polling, not about your base. This is about your conscience and your moral judgment. It’s about whether or not you will vote for decency and truth.”
They didn’t. But, in the end, the resolution passed — 219 Democrats and 11 Republicans standing up for decency and truth.