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Friday, August 06, 2010

SENATOR WETBACK

I prefer to refer to him as Senator Wetback. His real name was Patrick Anthony McCarran, and this bitter xenophobic, contemptuous narcissistic windbag, represented the very worst in the American character. He  preached fear of the future, fear of our enemies,  evenm and fear of ourselves. It was Pat McCarran who gave the Health Insurance industry their anti-trust status. It was Pat McCarran who fed America’s vile dead end phobia of Mexican immigration. It was Pat McCarran who used the Senate of the United States to bully and terrorize loyal American citizens. It was Pat McCarran who turned Joe McCarthy’s bungling histrionics into the best weapon the Communists had in the cold war. In short, it was Pat McCarran who was the wellspring of much that poisons American politics to this day.
Pat McCarran was born the same year that George Custer died on the Little Big Horn; 1876. He was raised on an isolated sheep farm outside of Reno, Nevada, 15 miles from his nearest human playmate. He remained an isolationist his entire life. He attended the University of Nevada Law School, but had to drop out when his father was injured. Pat would later pass the bar, studying on his own.
As a new lawyer Pat McCarran made two big mistakes. The first was in 1907 when Nevada Governor John Sparks offered the thirty year old an appointment as a judge. But Pat’s paranoia drove him to reject the appointment. He later admitted ruefully, “That was the first and only appointment that was ever offered to me.”
His second mistake was when he served as counsel in a divorce case, Wingfield v Wingfield. The husband, George Wingfield, was the Democratic political boss who ran Nevada politics. And by representing the wife, Mae Wingfield, Pat McCarran earned the undying enmity of the Nevada Democratic Party. When he tried to run for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1908 he was black balled. One party leader noted, “His reputation as a double-crosser is too well established thoughout the state.” Twenty years later the black ball still denied him a nomination for a Senate run.
Pat McCarran was finally allowed to run for the for U.S. Senate in 1932, at the age of 56, primarily because nobody else wanted what seemed like a useless nomination. But in the general election this “ rotund man with a double chin, wavy hair and a high-pitched voice, who often says "My hide yearns for the alkali dust and the desert"— was swept into Washington on Franklin Roosevelt’s coat tails.
But the new Junior Sentator (left - second row) from Nevada opposed every element of the New Deal. “The innovations of executive power, indulged in by Jackson, promoted by Lincoln, expounded by Garfield, declared righteous by Roosevelt and philosophically promulgated by Wilson, appear to have been but forerunners, rivulets, as it were, contributing to a flood that now sweeps on, submerging the utopian doctrines and theories of Jefferson and conferring unheard of and unfettered expansion to the executive” That kind of retoric got him re-elected in 1938 with 73% of the vote.
Now secure in his seat, McCarran made speechs along side fellow Catholic Charles Lindberg, preaching isolationism. “I think one American boy, the son of an American mother, is worth more than all central Europe.” He condemed Roosevelt’s “secret plan” to push America into WW II, and it was the desperate attempt to justify his prewar opposition to increased military budgets, which gave birth to the conspiracy myths that FDR had purposfully ignored Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor.
After Pearl Harbor, however, Senator McCarran was certain that Nevada got it’s share of war spending, including the third largest manufacturing facility built during the war, Basic Magnesim’s $140 million plant, built at government expense, and the town of Henderson, built to house the plant’s 15,000 workers. Pat won re-election in 1944 with 68% of the vote.
The war and time made Pat McCarran one of the nation’s most powerful senators, by making him one of its most Senators. By 1945 he had become the new political boss of Nevada, the new George Wingfield. Pat even filled the U.S. capital building with so many graduates from Nevada Universities that they became known as “McCarran’s Boys”. And after a couple of years working in Washington, many of the “boys” became part of the McCarran Machine, back home in Nevada.
Pat McCarran handed out just as many “black balls” as he had been handed. Federal Marshall Les Kofed explained to the Senator that Federal law prevented political appoinities from him from making speeches in support of a local politician. “Out of a clear blue sky, shortly thereafter,…I received a call from the chief deputy at Carson City, that a new marshal had been appointed, that I had better come in and turn in my key.”
By 1950 Time magazine had begun describing the 73 year old Pat McCarran as “pompous, vindictive and power-grabbing”. According to the magazine he “staged a one-man committee filibuster against an “Emergency Immigration bill” to admit (250,000) D. P’s to the U.S  The D.P.’s were Displaced Persons, who had survived the Nazi death and work camps, but whose identification papers had been lost or destroyed. They were people without homes or a nation willing to accept them. What concerned Pat McCarran was that many of them were Jews. He argued that the “Emergency Immigration Bill” was supported by a particular “pressure group” with “unlimited money”.
The DP bill had the support of President Eisenhower. But when it was first introduced into a subcommittee in the spring of 1953, Senator McCarran “demanded” a ten day delay while his wife sought medical treatment. But when “Senator Wetback” instead surfaced in Los Angles, holding hearings for his own Senate Security and Intelligence Sub Committee, and asked for three more weeks of delay, the immigration hearings finally began.
Three weeks into the hearings McCarran managed to snooker the Judiciary Committee (parent committee to the subcommittee) into voting to delay any further action by the subcommittee. When most of the Senators realized they had been tricked, fisticuffs almost broke out. It took a week, but the delay was eventually overturned. Still, in the end, McCarran managed to kill the bill.
In June of 1952 Pat McCarran co-sponsored a rewriting of immigration law, declaring that “…we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated… Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain… I do not intend to become prophetic, but if the enemies of this legislation succeed in riddling it to pieces, or in amending it beyond recognition, they will have contributed more to promote this nation's downfall than any other group since we achieved our independence as a nation.”
Next came the program which, for me, earned the Senator his nickname, “Operation Wetback.” It was launched in 1954 after Senator McCarran’s prodded the bureaucrats of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The program contrasted with the ten year old “Bracero” system, in which Mexican recruiters contracted to supply workers for American farmers and railroads.
By 1954 some 300,000 Mexican citizens were legally working in the United States on temporary “Bracero” visas. However those programs, which protected the worker’s rights and wages, were disliked by employers for those very reasons; those protections were also why Texas had refused to join the program for five years.
The INS would later claim to have expelled 1.3 million Mexicans (not the 13 million claimed in recent mythology) under Operation Wetback.  But a closer examination of the data shows the service could only prove some 80,000 were expelled. The addition half a million were an estimate of those who left the country out of fear, but the number was more hopeful than accurate.
The U.S. Army resisted joining the program, and in an internal report written later carried the notation, "Thank goodness."  The program ended abruptly when seven “illegals” being deported by ship, drowned while trying to swim back to the American shore. The crew of the steamer transporting them, then mutinied against their captain, and against the entire program. In the conservative myth the mutiny may get mentioned but never discussed.
But Pat McCarran’s most powerful weapon was his anti-communism. In this he was merely echoed by Senator Joe McCarthy. McCarran also supported Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, to the point that he was called “The Senator from Madrid.” He was an equally fierce supporter of Chiang Kai-Shek, after Chiang and his supporters were driven out of mainland China and retreated to the island of Taiwan. So rabid was McCarran's defense that it was not until Richard Nixon visited China in the 1970’s that some sanity and common sense return to American foreign policy in the region.
The McCarran’s Internal Security Act (of September 1950) required members of the communist party to register with the Attorney General. So onerous were the details of the act that between 1965 and 1967 almost all of it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Walt Kelly, who drew the popular "Pogo" comic strip chose to memorialize McCarrain with "Mole J. Macarney", a blind, paranoid creature, who spread tar on everything and everyone within reach.
Pat McCarran died of a heart attack in September of 1954, proving once again that politics is not about being right. It is about being re-elected. To most politicians, nothing else matters.
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