One of the most riveting moments in American political history occurred more than 60 years ago -- June 9, 1954 to be exact -- when Boston attorney Joseph Welch leaned across the witness table in a U. S. Senate hearing room and said to Sen. Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
It was a scene so powerful that it’s been replayed hundreds of times, embedding itself forever in political lore: Welch, sitting a mere six feet from McCarthy and, in only 17 words, delivering a comment so withering in its impact that it marked the start of the decline in McCarthy’s appeal to the American people.
Had Welch been in the audience in Hooksett, NH, Monday, he might have been moved to pose his famous question to Gov. Chris Christie, after the governor responded to what appeared to be a college-aged young woman who asked why he was campaigning when parts of the New Jersey shore remained submerged in sea water driven onto their streets by the storm that battered the region the previous weekend.
“What do you want me to do?” Christie shot back, “go down there with a mop?”
It was a deliberate and cruel humiliation of a young woman who asked what a great many people in New Jersey felt after Christie reluctantly returned to the state, spent a day here and then fled back to New Hampshire to resume his campaign.
It demonstrated yet again that his capacity for arrogance and condescension is unlimited. He’s unable, it seems, to resist the temptation to demean and belittle anyone who questions him or expresses an opinion contrary to his.
In a news conference the next day, Christie characterized his “mop” comment as a joke and suggested that the young woman who asked the question was a “plant,” someone who showed up at his event and attempted to embarrass him with her inquiry.
There were some who got the joke and others who did not, he said, but the reactions were not his concern.
In the same town hall forum, Christie told his audience that the mayor of North Wildwood was “crazy” for comparing the damage to his community to that inflicted by Hurricane Sandy more than three years ago. A day later, he apologized to the mayor.
He accused a reporter of “making it up” after he asked the governor to respond to criticisms of Christie’s comments that the Shore had endured no residual flooding damage.
At the time, television footage, news photos, and the Internet were brimming with photos of ice floes drifting along two- and three-foot deep waters in communities in Cape May and Atlantic counties.
Christie, though, boasted to New Hampshire audiences that his response to the storm was so effective, so positive that it demonstrated he possessed the kind of leadership needed in the next president of the United States.
His lack of civility and history of insulting and denigrating anyone he considers the least bit impertinent is well known. From calling people idiots to telling them to “sit down and shut up” to suggesting they were intellectually deficient, Christie cut a swath through political civility and achieved national recognition as a new kind of public figure unafraid to smack down opponents whenever and wherever he found them.
He’s called public employees “pigs” for advocating for their pensions and benefits and accused public school teachers of placing their financial well-being ahead of their commitment to their students.
Whether he intended his cutting, sarcastic reply to the young woman in New Hampshire as a joke, though, it went too far. Here he stood, the 52-year old governor, former United States Attorney and candidate for president, treating someone barely out of her teens as unworthy of his time and attention.
His lack of respect for her and his refusal to extend the most minimal courtesy was striking. He dismissed her as though she was a 6-year-old who asked her father for a second scoop of ice cream.
The sycophants with whom he’s surrounded himself may find his persona endearing and clever. To the rest of us, it’s ugly.
Christie’s supporters in the Legislature and elsewhere may have cringed in private over this latest incident just as they have in previous similar cases. Their silence in public is likely to continue.
Joseph Welch died in 1960, but his words -- “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” -- remain as powerful and insightful today as they were when first uttered seven decades ago.