Opinion: Seven days in March

Photo/Kenny Holston/The New York Times / House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, shown at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 2, 2023, has defended giving Fox News personality Tucker Carlson security footage from the Capitol.

In 1961, shortly after John F. Kennedy had been sworn in as president, two journalists, Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, set to writing a political thriller. It was inspired by the unsettling behavior of two generals, Edwin Walker and Curtis LeMay, both of whom had a history of using their positions to spout dangerous right-wing rhetoric that threatened to provoke nuclear war. In Knebel and Bailey's version, a highly decorated Air Force general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff plots with other senior military officers to seize power from the president to prevent a disarmament treaty with Russia from going into effect.

And so, the nation got "Seven Days in May," which shot to the top of the New York Times best sellers list and remained on the list for months. When Kirk Douglas and director John Frankenheimer decided to adapt the book to the screen, Kennedy, who had read the novel and thought it frighteningly plausible, encouraged the project and even helped in the production. The film, as the book, enjoyed enormous success.

The two leads were Burt Lancaster, who played the general, and Douglas, as a marine colonel who helped foil the plot. But it is with two other members of the cabal that current interest lies. One is a California senator, played by ubiquitous character actor Whit Bissell, and the other is an overly ambitious right-wing media celebrity, played by Hugh Marlowe, who had once been the lead in "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers." Without those two, representatives of the civilian government and the media, the plan would fail.

That of course brings us to another, more recent, unholy alliance between government and the media, this one involving the speaker of the House and third in line for the presidency, Kevin McCarthy, and overly ambitious right-wing media celebrity Tucker Carlson. McCarthy, on the ludicrous grounds of "transparency," gave Carlson, who is only transparent in his smug cynicism and duplicity, exclusive access to 40,000 hours of security tapes of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Carlson, to the surprise of no one, selected a few carefully edited, out of context clips to support his contention that the vast majority of those who illegally entered the Capitol were merely "sightseers."

Although Carlson's attempt to sanitize the invasion of Congress and minimize the violence was widely condemned, even by a number of Republican senators, it was also likely to reinforce the far-right narrative that the insurrectionists were merely patriots trying to save the country from an illegally anointed president-elect. It is a small step from there to conclude that the invaders were justified in their actions, and would be equally so in the future.

That recently released emails and texts in the Dominion voting machine lawsuit demonstrate that Carlson is none too wedded to the incendiary rhetoric he brays out nightly in no way minimizes the danger from his distortions and outright lies.

The real danger emanates from the political side. Kevin McCarthy may not be the brightest person in Congress -- Nancy Pelosi didn't call him a moron for nothing -- but even he must have some awareness of the perils of encouraging a segment of the nation that has already made it quite clear that they have no interest in democratic norms and have convinced themselves that they should rule by divine right. If he doesn't, he should, since he was in the Capitol, afraid for his life, during the very insurrection he is now downplaying.

As individuals, Carlson and McCarthy are hardly unique, and the United States is no stranger to either scurrilous media coverage or political opportunism. Just months after the presidential election of 1828, for example, Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, who had been unfairly portrayed in the press as an adulteress, died of a heart attack after falling into depression because of the attacks. In 1864, famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed Abraham Lincoln as an ape, this just seven years after the publication of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species."

In the first decades of the 20th century, newspaper magnates V.S. McClatchy and William Randolph Hearst shamelessly published article after bigoted article vilifying Asian Americans and helped create and perpetuate the poisonous atmosphere used as the justification for the illegal imprisonment of more than 100,000 innocent Americans of Japanese descent in 1942. Hearst, who admired all things German, including Adolph Hitler, was a ferocious crusader against communists, real and imagined ... mostly the latter. The number of articles demonizing African Americans in newspapers and magazines across America are too numerous to count.

In conjunction with these media campaigns, there are invariably conniving politicians slipstreaming along, eager to advance their careers by latching on to popular prejudice. Urbane, erudite James Duval Phelan happily exploited anti-Asian prejudice to be elected mayor of San Francisco and United States senator. Theodore Bilbo spewed the vilest slander of Black Americans to become both Mississippi's governor and then senator. Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy saw communists in every corner of America.

With all that, however, the McCarthy-Carlson conspiracy is both different and more dangerous. Here is an actual partnership, a marriage of the unethical and the unscrupulous, aimed at undermining both faith in fundamental institutions and the rule of law. McCarthy has thus initiated the sort of blurring of government and media that one would expect in Putin's Russia and other dictatorial regimes.

Democracy demands that the press be free of government control. It should also be free of government collaboration.

Tribune Content Agency