Whitewashing History at The New York Times

Robert Taft, Joseph McCarthy, and Ted Cruz


The New York Times today printed an example of one of the most tedious op-ed genres: the cri de coeur by a Republican who, as the standard formulation goes, "no longer recognizes" his party. This time the nostalgist is John G. Taft, who writes:

Five generations of Tafts have served our nation as unwaveringly stalwart Republicans, from Alphonso Taft, who served as attorney general in the late 19th century, through William Howard Taft, who not only was the only person to be both president of the United States and chief justice of the United States but also served as the chief civil administrator of the Philippines and secretary of war, to my cousin, Robert Taft, a two-term governor of Ohio.

As I write, a photograph of my grandfather, Senator Robert Alphonso Taft, looks across at me from the wall of my office. He led the Republican Party in the United States Senate in the 1940s and early 1950s, ran for the Republican nomination for president three times and was known as "Mr. Republican." If he were alive today, I can assure you he wouldn't even recognize the modern Republican Party, which has repeatedly brought the United States of America to the edge of a fiscal cliff—seemingly with every intention of pushing us off the edge.

The younger Taft goes on to contrast his grandfather with the Texas senator Ted Cruz, asserting that there "is more than a passing similarity between Joseph McCarthy and Ted Cruz, between McCarthyism and the Tea Party movement." At this point, the supposed Cruz/McCarthy parallels have become such a familiar cliché that the author doesn't bother to make an argument for them; he believes both men are embarassments to the party, and apparently that's enough. What's striking is that he makes this comparison in the context of praising his grandfather, who wasn't exactly unstained by McCarthyism. As Larry Ceplair wrote in Anti-Communism in Twentieth-Century America,

Republican leaders rarely spoke out against McCarthy, impelled by both their hope that McCarthy could lead the way to national political power and their fear of splitting the party. For example, Taft, who was the Republican leader in the Senate, underwent, in Richard Rovere's estimation, "a prolonged manic period" from 1950 to 1952, "when he stooped to encouraging and echoing McCrthy." Rovere had been following Taft closely since 1948, and thought of him as "a man of principle" and a committed civil libertarian. He quoted Taft as saying, after McCarthy's speech to the Senate defending the charges he made at Wheeling, "It was a perfectly reckless performance." But one month later, Taft told a group of reporters that while he had no particular faith in the accuracy of McCarthy's claims, he had urged McCarthy to go ahead anyway and had advised him "to keep talking, and if one case doesn't work out, proceed with another." In fact, Taft did publicly criticize McCarthy's attack on George Marshall in late 1951, but early the next year he gave the senator a strong public endorsement.

There is some doubt about whether that "keep talking" quote is accurate, but the larger pattern is plain: Taft zig-zagged back and forth between criticizing and supporting McCarthy. At one point he told a constituent that he has "always said that I thought Senator McCarthy was responsible for bringing to the attention of the American people the danger of Communist influence in government and did a great service in this respect." In the end Taft and McCarthy did end up at odds with one another, but it took Taft a while to get there.

The elder Taft deserves criticism for his dalliance with McCarthy, and for much else in his career. But he was a genuine fiscal conservative, a critic of excessive executive power, and a man whose foreign policy instincts, while inconsistent and contradictory in many ways, were anti-interventionist enough that he opposed the creation of NATO. Given all that, it's possible that he really would have trouble recognizing the modern Republican Party, or at least those portions of it that gave us the Bush administration. But I don't think he'd have trouble comprehending Ted Cruz.