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Ronald Reagan with John McCain in 1986 — when McCain was a Congressman running for the Senate for the first time (PHOTO BY CAROL M. HIGHSMITH VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)


With John McCain’s passing, it is difficult to imagine that the character of the Republican Party will ever return to that which defined it from the end of the Cold War to the beginning of the Trump era. When Harry Truman succeeded Franklin Roosevelt, many Republicans still subscribed to the pre-war isolationist ideology that had prevented America’s joining the League of Nations and had supported the imposition of tariff barriers that contributed to the worldwide Great Depression. Isolationism was still a potent force in the party even when Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, threw in his hat with Harry Truman’s political and economic initiatives that included, among others, the Marshall Plan that saved Western Europe from communism; Nato, which protected Europe militarily; and the Breton Woods plans that created the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, both of which stabilised the international financial and economic systems.

It was only when Dwight Eisenhower, the former Supreme Allied Commander and an avowed internationalist, won the party’s 1952 nomination for president by defeating Senator Robert Taft that the party’s isolationist streak became dormant. But it was never really completely eradicated. Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy cynically exploited the nation’s fear of communism to impugn key civil servants during the latter years of the Truman Administration. Several years after his fall, the John Birch Society emerged as a far-right fringe group that was as opposed to racial equality as it was to communists whom, like McCarthy, it saw under every bed.

Nevertheless, in the ensuing decade after Eisenhower’s election, moderates, most of them elected in northern states, held the upper hand in the Republican Party. While advocating  fiscal stringency, lower taxes, and a strong defence posture, Congressional Republicans were also generally supportive of the growing movement for civil rights for citizens then known as Negroes. It was southern Democrats who fought bitterly against any relaxation of their region’s discriminatory laws, or even for banning lynchings.

These Democrats included some of the Senate’s most prominent members. Among them were J. William Fulbright, he of the scholarships, who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee — after whom a Senate Office Building was named, though some Senators have proposed renaming it in memory of John McCain.

Indeed, it was Senator Russell who led the filibuster against what became the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act while the Republican leader in the Senate, Everett Dirksen (after whom another Senate office building is named) led the fight to break the filibuster. In the end, a higher percentage of Republicans voted for the Act in both houses of Congress, though of course they were in the minority and the legislation would not have passed without significant Democratic support.
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untenured
October 5th, 2018
10:10 AM
Let's pretend the U.S. political system is not a kleptocracy that values its gerontocracy above all. The stench of corruption pervades every process. Rotten to the core, but not a cause for concern.

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