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Memory As a Fickle Faculty

The OLD Philosopher – John M. Miller


I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin in the early 1950s. Madison then, as Madison now, was the bluest of Wisconsin’s cities. Milwaukee in those days was a very red city in the then-contemporary colors of the Fifties, because for years they had a socialist mayor.

In 1946 Joseph McCarthy was elected to the United States Senate from Wisconsin. He had been first in his class at the Marquette University Law School, and was the youngest member of the Senate at the time.

In 1952 McCarthy was re-elected, and he became the chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee. From that position he launched his infamous and unfounded attacks on purported communists in the State Department and elsewhere in government. It was a tense and outrageous period in American politics. Ultimately, with the encouragement of President Eisenhower, the Senate censured McCarthy in 1954, and he left the Upper Chamber in disgrace.

People who manage to live into their eighth or ninth decades, and who still have somewhat reliable faculties of memory, can recall many major events throughout their long lifetimes. I certainly don’t remember the McCarthy brouhaha as though it were yesterday; rather it is more like a foggy nightmare to me. I recall watching the McCarthy hearings on television in blurry black and white, and I remember how the country and especially the people in Wisconsin were greatly stirred up, both pro and con. There was a palpable fear of communists as well as Joseph McCarthy. 

My father was a lifelong Republican. I therefore assume he voted for Joe McCarthy in 1952. I do remember, or I choose to think I remember, that by the time the Senate censured McCarthy, none but the most hidebound of Wisconsin Republicans still supported their junior senator. (Alexander Wiley, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, was our senior Senator. How those two could have held office at the same time in the same state shall always remain one of the great mysteries of Badger State electoral politics.)

Anyway, without looking back into books, newspapers, or magazines of that period, it is impossible for me, and I suspect for anyone else, accurately to reconstruct a clear and valid summary of all the salient facts of one of our nation’s most emotional and damaging political controversies. Though I do not remember it, I am quite sure that early on, Joseph McCarthy caused Republicans to circle their wagons in their best defensive mode. By the end, however, only absolute diehards still sided with McCarthy. Though this has long since faded from memory, I suspect even Dad had given up on him.

John Meacham had an editorial in the Sept. 3-10 issue of Time. In it he related a little of the McCarthy story, comparing it to Watergate, and then obliquely hinting at what is going on now with the Trump-Manafort-Cohen-Mueller ever-unfolding drama. I remember Sam Ervin and John Dean much better than I remember Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohen. Many of the particulars of both scandals are gone completely from my cranial hardware, if in fact they ever became firmly lodged there.

As one who three times voted for Richard Nixon to become President, I shall never forget him standing on the top of the small ramp to the presidential helicopter, with that supercilious grin and that double-handed “V-for-Victory” salute. I felt much more sadness than rage in that moment. How could a man so extraordinarily skilled in foreign policy and so limited in essential humanity have betrayed the American people with such blind and colossal disregard?   

Looking back on it, memory deceives me into supposing that Watergate was quickly administered and adjudicated. It was not. It took three-quarters-of-forever to come to its magnificent, tragic, excruciating conclusion. Memory plays tricks on us, especially after we look back over several decades.

It has been at least ten years since Donald Trump took office on January 20 of 2017. We long for a swift resolution to the darkest national trauma of the past century. It shall not happen, because it cannot happen. Every “i” must be carefully dotted, every conceivable “t” must be conscientiously crossed, in order to convince as many Americans as possible that high crimes and misdemeanors have been committed, if indeed such misdeeds have been committed beyond any doubt.

It is understandable in September of 2018 that Republicans want the Mueller investigation to be finished yesterday, and that Democrats want to wait until November 6 of 2018 to see what happens in the mid-term elections. Fifty years from now, when people then in their eighties and nineties look back on these days, their memories of what was going on right now will be colored by what actually happened through events yet to be revealed, after this sordid saga is entirely played out.

Existential rage inevitably subsides. Emotional bile diffuses with the healing passage of time. This too shall pass.

In the meantime we rage. And emote. And wait. Facts shall be facts, but memory will shape this story in its own ways, as it always does for every story. And, as Isaac Watts, the great eighteenth century hymn writer, said, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.”

At the moment, nearly everyone feels that the sooner this is all over, the better. But it will not end soon, and it may not get better. However, like everything else, this too will pass - - - won’t it?


John Miller is Pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC. More of his writings may be viewed at www.chapelwithoutwalls.org.



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