OPINION | Shades of ‘Tail-Gunner Joe’ in Michele Bachmann’s comments allegations against Keith Ellison and Huma Abedin


The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “McCarthyism” as a “mid-20th century political attitude characterized chiefly by opposition to elements held to be subversive and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges; broadly: defamation of character or reputation through such tactics.”

The term’s namesake, Sen. Joe McCarthy, a Republican Wisconsin senator (1947-1957), became notorious for his allegations regarding alleged Soviet Communist subversion of the U.S. State Department and other government agencies. However, “Tail-Gunner Joe” came undone with his 1953 investigation of the U.S. Army.

In the famous 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, the unprincipled senator brought up the name of Fred Fisher, who worked in the Boston law office of Joseph Welch, the army’s chief legal counsel. McCarthy said that if Welch was interested in finding individuals who were acting on behalf of the Communist Party, he should check on Fisher, who had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild.

Welch responded to McCarthy: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

In the current political atmosphere, post-9/11, fear of Muslims has supplanted the Cold War-era fear of Commies hiding under every bed. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who represents Minnesota’s Sixth District in the U.S. House of Representatives, is leading the charge against the Muslim Brotherhood, which recently won elections in Egypt.

But forget Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood has a mole in the office of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to Bachmann.

As it turns out, in Bachmann World, Huma Abedin, a Clinton aide for two decades, is tied to Muslim extremists through her parents and siblings. Bachmann wrote and publicly disseminated letters to the inspectors general of the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Defense and Justice, and the director of National Intelligence, calling on them to investigate individuals and organizations alleged to have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The impetus for Bachmann’s letters reportedly came from reports by the Center for Security Policy, a group headed by Frank Gaffney that is known for its anti-Muslim agenda.

In the case of Bachmann’s suspicions about Secretary of State Clinton’s trusted aide, it should be pointed out that Abedin is married to former congressman Anthony Weiner, who is Jewish and a staunch supporter of Israel.

Casting aspersions on the loyalty of political foes apparently comes easily to Bachmann, who has attained a national reputation for uttering unfounded and inaccurate statements on a variety of topics. In her recent endeavor, however, Bachmann’s Republican compatriots have spoken out against her scurrilous charges, her anti-Muslim variant of McCarthyism.

Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential standard-bearer, denounced Bachmann’s assertions — without naming the Minnesota lawmaker, as per congressional courtesy — on the floor of the Senate: “When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation and we all grow poorer because of it.”

McCain, as quoted by Minnesota Public Radio, also said, “Huma Abedin represents what is best about America — the daughter of immigrants who has risen to the highest levels of our government on the basis of her substantial personal merit.”

House Speaker John Boehner chimed in on Bachmann’s allegations about Abedin, calling such character assassination “dangerous.”

And Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, of which Bachmann is a member, noted that her charge that Abedin posed a security threat “certainly doesn’t comport with the Intelligence Committee.”

Even those who have worked for the Minnesota congresswoman were repelled by her recent witch hunt.

Ed Rollins, who served as Bachmann’s campaign manager during her bid for the Republican presidential nomination, wrote, regarding her charge against Abedin, that he was “fully aware that she sometimes has difficulty with her facts, but this is downright vicious and reaches the late Senator Joe McCarthy’s level.”

Last week, a host of religious, secular, interfaith, advocacy and community organizations sent a letter to Bachmann — and to four other House members aligned with her — which said that her “actions have serious implications for religious freedom and the health of our democracy.”

The letter to Bachmann from 42 groups — including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, National Council of Jewish Women, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Society for Humanistic Judaism — concluded: “Far from supporting the safety of our country, these accusations distract us from examining legitimate threats using proven, evidence-based security strategies. Moreover, we know all too well the danger of casting suspicion on loyal and innocent Americans simply because they hold particular beliefs. We will not stand idly by and allow our country to revive federal investigations into innocent individuals based on their religious adherence. We will continue to speak out in support of people of all faiths and no faith, and the religious freedom of all Americans to practice — or choose not to practice — a religion without fear of criticism or suspicion.”

Finally, on Monday, Secretary of State Clinton responded to the Bachmann-generated controversy about Abedin. As reported by CBS News, after a speech on international religious freedom at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C., Clinton addressed a question about “Islamophobia,” vis-à-vis Bachmann’s charges: “Leaders have to be active in stepping in and sending messages about protecting the diversity within their countries. And frankly, I don’t see enough of that, and I want to see more of it. I want to see more of it, and we did see some of that in our own country. We saw Republicans stepping up and standing up against the kind of assaults that really have no place in our politics.”

Bachmann’s anti-Muslim bigotry has no place in American politics and truly poisons our political culture. Dismayingly, the congresswoman apparently suffers no real consequences in the aftermath of demonizing a loyal public servant like Abedin. Further, in the early stages of the controversy, Bachmann lashed out at Rep. Keith Ellison, her colleague in the Minnesota congressional delegation, saying that he, too, had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In fact, Ellison has emerged, since his election to the U.S. House in 2006, as a friend of the Jewish community in Minnesota, a supporter of Israel, and an energetic seeker after peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Among our federal elected officials from Minnesota, there is no one more knowledgeable about the issues and players in the Middle East. Bachmann’s slurs against Ellison are reprehensible.

Over many years, Bachmann has enjoyed entrée to Jewish communal events. The organized Jewish community, apparently taken with her avowed support for and love of Israel, has invited her to address rallies for Israel.

This practice should stop. If Bachmann cannot conduct herself in a rational and responsible manner, the Jewish community in Minnesota should shun her. By inviting her to our events, given her a podium to speak to our community, we are conferring legitimacy on her damaging brand of intolerance. Voters in the Sixth District can give Bachmann their votes time and again; but we can say that her politics is beyond the pale.