(Artvoice February 26, 1999)

Witch-Hunting Days

by Bruce Jackson


NBC Takes on Starr

On Wednesday and Friday of last week, interlinked programs of two of the most-watched prime-time network crime dramas, NBC's "Law and Order" and Homicide" targeted a Federal independent prosecutor, a man unambiguously vicious, vindictive, egocentric, merciless, amoral, and relentlessly driven to destroy the president. This independent prosecutor had leering assistants who helped him smear the political reputations of anyone who wouldn't support him in his mission. He and his minions freely granted immunity to brutal murderers in the hope they would in exchange provide smarmy gossip on the sexual peccadilloes of White House staff members.

This was maybe the first time that major prime-time television programs attacked the methods and morality of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr. The late-night comics have been having at Starr for years, but these two prime-time dramas argued that there's nothing the least bit funny about Kenneth Starr.

The McCarthy Model

The actor who played the independent prosecutor sort of looked like Kenneth Starr, but he didn't sound at all like him. His inflections were familiar to anyone old enough to have seen the first governmental hearings ever televised live to a national audience, the 187 hours over 36 days in 1954 when Senator Joseph McCarthy tried to take on the U.S. Army. The voice and postures would also have been familiar to anyone who remembers "Point of Order," Emile de Antonio's superb 1963 documentary made from the kinescopes of those broadcasts.

The actor mimed Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, the man who from 1950 to 1954 terrorized the country with witch hunts that destroyed thousands of lives. Any doubt that the producers of the two NBC tv shows were linking McCarthy and Starr ended when Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy on "Law and Order," played by Sam Waterston, told the independent prosecutor just how amoral and disgusting a creature he was. McCoy's lines were lifted from the most famous statement in the entire Army-McCarthy hearings: the moment when the Army's attorney, Joseph N. Welch, said to McCarthy: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.... You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

The special prosecutor in last week's tv show ignored the critique, but in real life those words were the end of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the beginning of the end for McCarthy. In December of that year, his colleagues in the Senate censured him, after which he became something of a fool in the Capitol. He submitted a few pieces of legislation but none of them passed. He was drunk more and more of the time and he finally drank himself to death. He died in May 1957.

Two Missionary Positions

Like Joe McCarthy and Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor on the "Law and Order/Homicide" diptych would immediately turn his investigative armamentarium on people who questioned his practices. You don't cooperate? You get smeared. Nobody has secrets. With an unlimited budget and an army of investigators, anything can be found out. Reporters who have written stories about Starr's persecution of potential witnesses have themselves become targets of his inquiries. Witnesses he's wanted to testify who've refused to say what he wanted have themselves been made targets of his inquiries. For Starr, it's a no-lose situation: even if he gets nothing out of his persecutions, the people he goes after are ruined financially.

Maybe the major difference between Joe McCarthy and Kenneth Starr is this: McCarthy was politically accountable and Starr isn't. Starr can't be dumped merely because he's embarrassing or vicious or too expensive or without any sense of proportion or reason or equity. The legislation that created him makes him one of the most protected officials in our government. Because Richard Nixon fired independent counsel Archibald Cox when Cox was getting too close in his investigation, the current independent counsel legislation has no off switch, no stop button. The only way to get rid of him (other than him wearing out or losing interest in the hunt) is if he is found culpable of some criminal activity himself. Reportedly Attorney General Reno is currently considering appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the special prosecutor. The Romans had a phrase for it: quis custodiet custodes. Who shall watch the watchers themselves?

The Virtue of Tedious TV

In a visit to Buffalo in 1988, Emile de Antonio said he thought the most important development in media in the past 30 years was C-SPAN. He said he left his tv on C-SPAN all day because it was the only station that gave him statements in their entirety. The evening news gives only sound bites, snippets that merely illustrate the stories rolling by on the newsreader's teleprompter, but C-SPAN gives the entire speech, the entire press conference, the entire interview, no matter how tedious, no matter how boring. In the world of sound bites, de Antonio said, any idiot can look good and any genius can look stupid. But when we can watch the whole thing, then the speakers may give us enough information so we can make up our own minds. De Antonio said C-SPAN was the first time television became an instrument of democracy on a regular basis. In the past, that total access, those times when the camera was pointed and not turned off, occurred rarely and nearly always with profound consequences: the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 and the Watergate hearings in 1974. (He spoke before the Senate wimped out at the Iran-Contra hearings.)

I wish he were still alive. I'd like to hear his take on the recent impeachment hearings, hear who he thought was hurt more: Bill Clinton by the arguments adduced by the House prosecutors, or the House prosecutors by the arguments they presented again and again and again. I know that Henry Hyde was, at the beginning of the process, generally regarded as a man of great fairness and profound Constitutional knowledge. By the end Hyde was commonly seen as a pompous and vindictive zealot, a man who, in the words of one journalist, "leaves no cliche unturned."

The Investigator

In "The Poetics," his great essay on drama, Aristotle argued that poetic fiction could be more true than history, because history was always locked into the specific while poetry could get at the real nature of things, at the general principles. In "Point of Order," Emile de Antonio made poetry out of the Army-McCarthy hearings and got to the heart of the matter in a way few historical analysts even approached.

But a phonograph record in the mid-fifties, a decade before de Antonio's film, did it better. The record was called "The Investigator" and it was almost impossible to find. Record store clerks pretended it didn't exist. Even after McCarthy was dead you could only get that record if you had a friend who had a friend. The jacket had no credits, no information about who made it, there were only those two words: "The Investigator." The Investigator was a McCarthy-like figure whose plane crashes into a mountain. He winds up in Heaven, where he immediately allies with Torquemada and Titus Oates and Cotton Mather to get rid of subversives. He keeps saying, in a voice that is an absolute double for McCarthy's, "No one is too high." When he decides it's time to go after God himself, there's musical cacophony and then descending scales, and it's clear our investigator has gone to Hell. They won't have him either, so he's kicked back to earth. He is found babbling at the foot of the mountain where the plane crashed, totally insane. One of his aides says "He's the only survivor. It's a miracle." Indeed.

The record was, I think, pirated from a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program with McCarthy imitated by John Drainie and the script by Ruben Ship, a Canadian who had written for the popular American show "Life of Riley," until he was blacklisted by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). The Canadians caught our witch hunting virus and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, just like the FBI, was for a time dedicated to rooting out of communists, real or imagined. CBC productions were canceled if the RCMP told CBC execs that people associated with the programs were tainted. Ruben Ship was allowed to write for CBC programs but only if his name were left off the credits so as not to offend the RCMP or the American witch-hunters to the south. So the greatest parody of the greatest twentieth century American witch hunter before Kenneth Starr was circulated in this country without name.

Beyond the Sound Bite

Crazy days, those witch hunting days of the early 1950s. Crazy days, these witch hunting days of the late 1990s. Joe McCarthy was destroyed by unfiltered exposure on national television. Except for his smug presentation to the House Judiciary Committee, Kenneth Starr has been smarter than Joe McCarthy: he allows only carefully-phrased sound bite snippets as he gets into his car, he's avoids long looks by the camera eye. No one sees him at work.

The mainline media seem to have tired of that invisibility. If they can't get the real Kenneth Starr, they'll go with a fictive counterpart. If they can't show him doing what he does, they'll have a fictional character do what they think he does. Sure, there's a difference between the real thing and the fictive counterpart, but as Aristotle argued, the difference isn't always as great as you might think. And as the open camera and Joseph Welch proved in 1954 with Senator Joseph McCarthy, letting us in on the action is where the best endings often begin.

Email: bjackson@acsu.buffalo.edu
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copyright Bruce Jackson 1999