Crazy Politicians Through History


Joe Klein writes about the rise of the crazy party:

How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? And another question: How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?

He says it didn’t always used to be this way:

An argument can be made that this is nothing new. Dwight Eisenhower tiptoed around Joe McCarthy. Obama reminded an audience in Colorado that opponents of Social Security in the 1930s “said that everybody was going to have to wear dog tags and that this was a plot for the government to keep track of everybody … These struggles have always boiled down to a contest between hope and fear.” True enough. There was McCarthyism in the 1950s, the John Birch Society in the 1960s. But there was a difference in those times: the crazies were a faction — often a powerful faction — of the Republican Party, but they didn’t run it. The neofascist Father Coughlin had a huge radio audience in the 1930s, but he didn’t have the power to control and silence the elected leaders of the party that Limbaugh — who, if not the party’s leader, is certainly the most powerful Republican extant — does now. Until recently, the Republican Party contained a strong moderate wing. It was a Republican, the lawyer Joseph Welch, who delivered the coup de grce to Senator McCarthy when he said, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Where is the Republican who would dare say that to Rush Limbaugh, who has compared the President of the United States to Adolf Hitler?


This is all true, but I think it’s a rather rose-tinted way of looking at the past. Consider that back in 1955 a prominent American politician declared that “On May 17, 1954, the Constitution of the United States was destroyed because of the Supreme Court’s decision.” The decision in question was Brown v. Board of Education and he went on to urge people to break the law, arguing that “You are not obliged to obey the decisions of any court which are plainly fraudulent.” Ten days after the Brown ruling he testified thusly before the senate:

The Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period. Separation promotes racial harmony. It permits each race to follow its own pursuits, and its own civilization. Segregation is not discrimination… Mr. President, it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself. All free men have the right to associate exclusively with members of their own race, free from governmental interference, if they so desire.

He told Lyndon Johnson that the murder of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman was a “publicity stunt” that didn’t warrant further investigation. He told Jewish Senator Jacob Javits “I don’t like you — or your kind.” He used his position on as head of the Internal Security Subcommittee to harass civil rights proponents under guise of seeking out communist subversion. And in 1956 he became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee giving him jurisdiction over all Civil Rights Legislation.

The Senator in question was James Eastland of Mississippi and he was a good deal crazier and more repugnant than anyone currently serving in the Congress. But he was a Democrat. Just as there used to be a fair number of moderately progressive Republicans in Congress there used to be a sizable block of rabid white supremacists who operated with utter contempt for democracy and the rule of law inside the Democratic Party. This created structural conditions for a good deal of bipartisanship, but it wasn’t actually less deranged than present-day conditions. And note that Eastland persisted in the Senate, albeit in somewhat mellowed form, all the way until 1978!

Another moral of the story is that Eastland’s chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee obviously made passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 impossible. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and President Lyndon Johnson dealt with this by just . . . not letting the bill get bottled up in committee and bringing it to the floor instead. The sky didn’t fall! Leading politicians decided that justice was more important that the dead hand of Senate procedure and they brought the bill to the floor where it was voted on.