Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana is no dimwit, but you'd never have known it watching him question Saule Omarova, President Joe Biden's pick to serve as comptroller of the currency, about her childhood in the former Soviet Union. Omarova, a Cornell University law professor who advised President George W. Bush's administration on regulatory policy, emigrated to America 30 years ago and has been an American citizen since 2005.
Kennedy, who studied at Oxford, may be presumed to have read somewhere along the way that in the Soviet Union, where Omarova was born in 1966, students were not exactly free to repudiate the Communist Party. Everyone was required to sign up; it wasn't a matter of choice.
Which is why comparisons with Joe McCarthy's cruel and dishonest bullying flowed so naturally when Kennedy smeared Omarova as a "communist" at a Senate hearing last week, demanding to know about her "membership" in a communist youth organization that he knew she was not free not to join.
"You used to be a member of a group called The Young Communists, didn't you?" sneered Kennedy.
"Senator, are you referring to my membership in the youth communist organization when I was growing up in the Soviet Union?" asked Omarova.
"I don't know, I just wanted to ask you that question," replied Kennedy.
"Senator, I was born and grew up in the Soviet Union... " she began, but he interrupted her. "But were you a member of that organization?" Kennedy demanded.
She explained that as a youngster of a certain age, she had no choice but to be a member. Kennedy asked whether she had ever submitted a formal letter of resignation, which is just what young Americans do when they age out of Little League.
"I don't know whether to call you professor or comrade," he said mockingly, pleased with his cleverness.
"I am not a Communist," the former Bush administration official was forced to state, trembling at the humiliation. "I could not choose where I was born. I grew up without knowing half of my family. My grandmother twice escaped death under the Stalinist regime. I am proud to be an American."
Nationally renowned immigrant rights attorney Susan Cohen, whose career representing refugees fleeing persecution is chronicled in her new book, "Journeys from There to Here," gave Kennedy more credit than due. "His insensitivity and uneducated comments belie his ignorance and lack of appreciation of the valiant journeys of so many naturalized Americans precisely to flee Communist regimes," Cohen says. But there is a more cynical take: Kennedy, who repeatedly ran for office as a Democrat before switching parties to catch Louisiana's red wave, takes his opportunities to burnish his bona fides with the xenophobic set because it helps him politically.
But Kennedy is The Great American Statesman himself compared to fellow Republican Paul Gosar, Congressman from Arizona by way of Pluto. Gosar was censured by the House of Representatives last week for creating and circulating a video cartoon featuring himself murdering Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. An even minimally compos mentis Republican caucus would have joined Democrats in censuring Gosar because, well, glorifying the homicide of a House colleague doesn't seem quite right. But not this Republican caucus, infected by a kind of disease for which there isn't a vaccine.
Gosar's siblings were less sympathetic to their brother, the Lee Harvey Oswald wannabe, than his fellow House Republicans, suggesting that Gosar belonged perhaps not so much in Congress as he does in the evaluation unit of the Arizona Home for the Criminally Insane. Gosar's brother owned that Gosar shouldn't merely be censured by Congress but expelled from it, and thereafter prosecuted. It's going to be an interesting time at the Gosar family Thanksgiving, and not because of any fighting over who gets the drumsticks.
Kennedy and Gosar are just two members of the once-Grand Old Party who soil our American flag. And they have plenty of comrades who have dirt on their hands as well.
Jeff Robbins, an attorney specializing in the First Amendment, is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.