In June of 1954, the career of Sen. Joseph McCarthy began to implode when an Army lawyer, Joseph Welch, interrupted with his now-famous, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" The anti-communist investigations soon ended, and senators voted to censure McCarthy. They charged that he "acted contrary to senatorial ethics and tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute … and to impair its dignity." He died within three years.
Though history has shown there was truth in many of McCarthy's accusations, the scandal was never really about his anti-communist crusade. It was about tactics — his contempt for witnesses, government officials, and fellow senators. They began turning their backs on him whenever he spoke, rebuking his lack of respect. Observers of today's U.S. Senate hearings would be hard pressed to find any shred of the dignity its members once defended so fiercely.
Today congressmen and senators openly accuse each other of lying, cheating, and stealing. Confirmation hearings regularly deteriorate into spectacles that would never have been tolerated in McCarthy's time. Nominees for responsible public offices are brazenly accused of the most outrageous crimes, based on "evidence" that would never survive the lowliest court. The treatment of judicial nominees like Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, and Bret Kavanaugh would have been unconscionable even to McCarthy.
Last week we witnessed yet another example of the depths to which political opponents will stoop to destroy reputations, rather than argue their side of legitimate policy disagreements. The president's nominee for secretary of the Interior, Western Slope native David Bernhardt, was scathingly attacked during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He stood accused of lying, cheating, feathering his personal nest, breaking promises, and violating all manner of laws, not a word of which had any basis in reality.
Whether such accusations are true, however, isn't really the point — the senators making such charges are well aware of the truth. This is simply the way many of them now handle disputes about policy. Reasonable people may disagree on the goals of the current administration and its Interior Department leadership. But at least some critics in the Senate are not content (or even willing) to make their case on those issues. They would rather assassinate the character of an honorable guy who is doing his best to implement the priorities he was hired to oversee.
The primary accusations against Bernhardt have not changed during the two years he has served as deputy secretary and acting cecretary (he is now nominated to replace Ryan Zinke, who resigned in January).
They say he is trying to open public lands to oil and gas production, that he favors shorter and easier permitting processes, and that he wants fewer regulations. By coincidence, those are also priorities of the president, and of the American people who elected him.
Beyond those objectives, though, opponents charge that Bernhardt spent some of his previous life in business with like-minded people, even representing some of those industries as a lawyer. Yet all of that was well known when he was confirmed by the same U.S. Senate to be deputy secretary in 2017. Nothing has changed about the nominee; it is the senators who now see a different context. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet voted for Bernhardt before, but now says he cannot. Now, he is running for president and needs environmental industry support.
The most McCarthy-like performance, though, came from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who sanctimoniously called Berhardt, "just another corrupt official," as he thundered "Why would you come to my office to lie to me about your ethics?" Another senator insisted that Bernhardt recuse himself from any involvement in any of the important issues at his department for the rest of his tenure. Bernhardt adroitly declined, while maintaining an admirable degree of composure and courtesy throughout the harangue.
None of the senators now accusing Bernhardt of conflicts of interest ever expressed any such qualms about his predecessors. They were fine with Secretary Sally Jewell making decisions that benefited her former employer, REI. They never objected to the dozens of Obama appointees who previously worked for the environmental lobby that dominated Interior policies of that era.
David Bernhardt and I are not especially close, though I have known and admired him for years. I am just someone who misses the civility of an apparently bygone age, when Americans valued great debates on vital issues, not unseemly attacks on each other's integrity. Somehow the Senate needs to recapture, at long last, its sense of decency.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of "Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back." He is a Western Slope native.