William Katz: I did not know that

Occasional contributor Bill Katz presides at Urgent Agenda, though he saves his longer reflections on life and politics for us. Today Bill draws on his experience working for Johnny Carson to comment on the current campaign:

Some readers may know that I used to work for Johnny Carson. Johnny had a favorite expression: “I did not know that.” You may recall him using it.

I’ve found myself repeating that line regularly during this election campaign. It’s amazing, the things I did not know. For example, it’s apparently wrong to bring up a presidential candidate’s 20-year affiliation with an anti-American, anti-Semitic pastor.

I did not know that.

It’s apparently wrong to discuss that candidate’s working affiliation with a man who is unrepentant about setting off bombs in public buildings.

I did not know that.

And it’s apparently wrong, maybe even racist, to mention the candidate’s close relationship with a pro-Arafat professor who defends suicide bombings.

I did not know that.

Well, now I know, and maybe I should have known. It’s wrong to bring these things up because they involve, say it in a whisper please, “guilt by association.”

Now, that term I know. I’ve known it all my adult life. And I also know that it’s been completely twisted out of shape in this presidential campaign. And why not? The term has been increasingly misused for half a century. Like an angry guard dog, it scares off all comers.

First of all, a simple question: What’s wrong with guilt by association? We judge people by the company they keep, by their pals, by their business affiliations. We all remember bringing home a friend from school, and having mom later say, “You know, I’m sure he’s nice, but I don’t like the kids he hangs out with.” We may have argued with mom, but we knew what she was saying, and we knew she was watching out for us. Yet, if we apply the same standard to a guy who wants to sit at Bill Clinton’s…well, Abraham Lincoln’s desk, we’re told we’re not only out of order, but we’re political degenerates as well, and maybe unsuitable for marriage.

The reason for this hypocrisy is fairly clear. The term “guilt by association” got its modern start in the so-called McCarthy era, the early fifties. For half a century the political left, including much of the literary, Hollywood and journalistic establishment, has decreed that any practice linked with that era must be banned from society, on pain of sin. The problem, of course, is that guilt by association meant something entirely different in McCarthy’s day. In its strict political sense, defined in the early fifties, it meant a casual, or even an accidental or unintended association. It even, in some cases, meant a nonexistent association, but one that was implied by vague evidence.

Here is a classic description of guilt by association: Senator Jones is invited to address a meeting of small businessmen. He appears, makes his speech, and then poses for a routine picture with officers of the group. A year later the man standing next to him is exposed as a pedophile. When Senator Jones runs for reelection, the picture surfaces. His opponent waves it before TV cameras, saying, “This is the kind of person Senator Jones counts among his friends.” That’s guilt by association.

There were several famous guilt by association cases in McCarthy’s time. In one, an Air Force lieutenant, Milo Radulovich, was stripped of his commission and declared a security risk because his father and sister were thought to be Communist sympathizers. The evidence against both was absurdly thin, at best. Edward R. Murrow, then the dean of broadcast journalists, exposed the matter on CBS, leading to national revulsion against such “guilt by association” tactics. Radulovich was later reinstated.

The most famous case, and perhaps the most damaging, involved Democratic Senator Millard E. Tydings of Maryland. Tydings chaired the Tydings Committee, formed to investigate Joseph McCarthy’s charges of Communist influence in the State Department. The committee’s report was harshly critical of McCarthy and his allegations. In retaliation, when Tydings ran for reelection in 1950, McCarthy’s staff distributed a faked, composite photo of Tydings with Earl Browder, former leader of the American Communist Party. Browder had testified before the Tydings Committee, and so a plausible case could be made that the two “knew” each other, or had contact. Although Browder’s testimony was stormy and hostile, Tydings said, “Thank you, sir,” when it ended, a quote later used to “prove” that he was friendly toward Browder. The “association” was damaging to Tydings, who was defeated for reelection.

Those are “guilt by association” cases. That’s what the term means. Those who fought against the tactic in the fifties would probably be shocked to see it applied to Barack Obama’s 20-year relationship with a pastor or his working connection, over years, with Bill Ayers. Those are issues of judgment. They were not casual or accidental. They go to the heart of who Obama is, the kind of people he’s chosen to work with and follow. We should not be deterred from examining those relationships, and demanding details.

It’s sad is that the press has gone along with the twisting of “guilt by association.” There are probably no veterans of the McCarthy era left in journalism to raise the caution flag. Young reporters who covered Millard Tydings would be in their eighties now. The editors running things today are graduates of the sixties, with all that implies, not much of it good. They are not serving the public well in many areas, but they could at least try to get the vocabulary right. Instead, they tell us we must not question, we must not probe, or we’re guilty of negativism, McCarthyism, racism, and insensitivity.

I did not know that.

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