Jeff Flake’s Joseph N. Welch moment

I was in the process of picking my son up from school when I just happened to change the Sirius XM station in my car to the CNN audio feed.

It was an amazing piece of luck that I just happened to change channels right as Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake made what I thought was a historic speech in the Senate. (You can read the full text of Flake’s speech here.) It was honest, thoughtful, and laser-focused on our main political problem these days: Trump’s amateur-hour antics and the populist mumbo-jumbo he deliberately engenders. I’m not going to summarize his speech here. I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Please read it. Don’t let Fox News or CNN read it for you. Please read it for yourself.

I was immediately reminded of another speech that marked a pivotal moment in our history. It was the speech Joseph N. Welch made during one of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s televised communist witch hunts disguised as a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing. The General Counsel of the Army, no less, famously asked McCarthy, “At long last, do you have no sense of decency?” It was a turning point. McCarthy soon fell from grace, and his paranoid anti-communist pogrom fell apart after ruining the lives of so many Americans. (For more information on McCarthyism, click here.)

I thought I was listening to history as it happened. Flake thought so too. I could hear in how he spoke that he was impressed with the gravity of his words. He was nervous throughout the speech, but he did what heroes do: overcome their fear for something greater than themselves. I thought, this is the moment.

Yeah, right.

After Flake finished and yielded the floor, Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell took the lectern and mumbled some platitudes about what a shame it was that Flake was retiring and wished him the best. It took about thirty seconds for the fact that nothing was going to change because of what Flake had said to sink into my thick skull.

Decency, as it turns out, is no longer a quality prized in politicians. I think we can safely add dignity, honesty, conscience, fairness, restraint, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and a desire to do good to the list of now-antiquated, quaint virtues. All that matters is winning, no matter the cost.

I suppose, in a way, I was witnessing a pivotal moment in history after all. It was the moment when true love of country gasped its dying breath.


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