What I.F.Stone Said and What He Might Say Now
In this season of threats to democracy, Russian aggression, conspiracies on the far right and illiberalism of some on the left, I have been thinking, again, about my long-ago boss, I. F. Stone.
Izzy’s great friend Karl E. Meyer died in 2019, and his widow, the writer Shareen Brysac, knowing of my interest, sent me several of Izzy’s books that had been inscribed to Karl as well as a selection of the four-page weeklies published from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Here, to provide a sense of Izzy’s inimical voice is a paragraph from the issue of November 7, 1960, on the eve of the presidential election, under the headline, “Why We Cannot Recommend Either Candidate”:
Speaking of prestige as Kennedy does daily, U.S. prestige has hardly been advanced by the character of the campaign. The American two-party system never looked more monolithic; it has often been difficult to distinguish the real differences between the two parties as it is to choose between Ivory and Sweetheart soap. The phony smell of advertising copy has hung over the prepared scripts and there have been times when it seems to be a beauty contest. Kennedy is prettier than Nixon but Lodge is handsomer than Johnson while Jackie clearly has it all over Pat; this election is as apt to be decided by a hair-do as by a hair.
More to today’s point, I’ve been wondering what Izzy would say about the political situation we now face. Having won the presidency and breezed past the Mueller report and two impeachment trials, Donald J. Trump is in the direct sights of the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, whose eight hearings to date have been among the most compelling televised congressional events since the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954.
Why mention those hearings from so long ago? Because a bipartisan Senate select subcommittee unanimously voted for the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican whose anti-communist crusade of that time and his sway over a swath of American public opinion presaged the trajectory of Trump’s denial of the 2020 election results and his activities around the assault on the Capitol. (McCarthy, in contrast to Trump, was not being investigated for criminal activity. The censure was for “heinous” disrespect for Congress.)
Here is an excellent summary of the McCarthy censure case from senate.gov.
And here is an excerpt of what Izzy wrote in a chapter called “The Downfall of McCarthy,” originally published in 1954 and included in his collection called The Haunted Fifties, published by Random House in 1963. Izzy’s case for the censure of McCarthy easily can be read to apply to Trump also.
What is McCarthy’s strategy?
His own party has been looking to him as its main card in the fall elections…Does he prefer a fight with the president which can make it possible to place the blame for an electoral defeat on the Eisenhower-Dewey conservative Eastern leadership?...Does he dream of breaking up the old parties and emerging with a movement of his own?
The situation has its advantages for the fight against fascism in America. During the past year, a series of events have finally begun to bring home the meaning of the witch hunt to wide sections of the American people.
This week’s rejection of the Kansas constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade can also be seen as a victory in today’s battle in the “fight against fascism.” So events being what they are, Izzy would doubtless have a great deal to say about the current situation with Trump.
What follows is an effort to channel a scenario that Izzy might make for how to deal with the case of Donald Trump. This is based in part on conversations with people, although not named, who are knowledgeable, I can assure you. And to a person they do not actually know how this will end. So this is informed conjecture written with Izzy in mind, but without his signature wit and asperity.
As the January 6 hearings culminate, Attorney General Merrick Garland will need to make a decision based on the evidence, about whom to indict from the Trump cabal – Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Roger Stone, etc. – and Trump himself.
The attorney general is a cautious man and while he may believe he has an airtight case for conviction, he knows that any guilty verdict will be appealed to the Supreme Court with an uncertain result, especially on the matter of Trump, a former president.
Ultimately, what to do is President Biden’s decision, and a good guess is that he will be considering at least three things:
(1) The impact on the country of indicting Trump, bringing the case to trial, and acquittal or conviction followed by appeals that would last for months.
(2) Indicting members of Trump’s cohort would be similar to what happened in the Watergate era when John Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman, Charles Colson, and others went to prison while President Richard Nixon was let off with a pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford, which resolved the criminal matter – and probably cost Ford the 1976 election.
(3) Given that there has to be some measure of accountability of Trump for his role in the crisis, what can be done, short of an indictment?
This is where censure comes into focus. History.com explains the issue. Since 1800, fourteen sitting presidents have faced censure by Congress, but only four were censured by a resolution that was adopted by a majority of either the Senate or the House of Representatives. They were Andrew Jackson (1834), James Buchanan (1860), Abraham Lincoln (1864), and William Howard Taft (1912).
Congressional censure only requires a majority vote, unlike impeachment, which requires two-thirds of the Senate to convict. It’s worth remembering that fifty-seven senators voted for conviction in the second Trump impeachment, after the House Democratic majority with ten Republican votes brought the case to trial.
And it is also important to recall that while Trump is now a former president, he was still in office when the events leading to January 6 took place.
Either by preparing a censure resolution in advance or doing so immediately after an address to the nation revealing his decision, Biden would announce that Donald Trump’s criminal actions would not be presented to a grand jury, but he could well be named an unindicted co-conspirator in the prosecution of others involved.
Biden’s explanation would be that the country deserves to be spared the inevitable turbulence that would result from trying Trump in federal court. Events in Georgia, where investigations are also underway, might lead to a different indictment scenario, one that would not involve the Justice Department or the White House.
The president would strongly advocate the censure resolution, preferably to be adopted by both houses of Congress.
And then – because the public reaction is bound to be explosive – Biden would declare that he will not run for reelection in 2024 and would devote his final two years in office to fulfilling his agenda and pledges to the American people.
The political cacophony would be loud. But assuming the resolution is adopted by a bipartisan majority, Trump would, at last, have been dealt with. He may well insist that he has been vindicated, an assertion that would seem ridiculous given such a public repudiation.
Following the censure of Senator McCarthy in 1954, his bubble burst. His status and influence collapsed. And he was dead three years later from alcoholism and almost certainly a crushed ego.
And while I’m at it, a reminder of Joseph Robinette Houdini, who once again is poised to go from the prospect of political oblivion to redemption – a president leading the nation through travail with the courage of his (but not Trump’s) conviction.