By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – What can we learn from the Kathy Griffin fiasco?

We can re-learn an old lesson, famously taught to us 63 years ago this month by Joseph Welch, a Boston lawyer defending the U.S. Army against accusations of communist infiltration lodged by red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy.

McCarthy was ruining reputations and lives with charges that often lacked supporting evidence, and when he went after a young associate in Welch’s law firm, Welch struck back in a moment historians say marked the beginning of the end for McCarthy.

welch mccarthy Keller @ Large: Decency Still Matters

Joseph Welch (seated left) and Senator Joespeh McCarthy (standing right) during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings.
(Photo credit: United States Senate Historical Office)

“Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Welch said in his historic remarks.

Decency – the basic requirement of respectable behavior.

It’s different from taste or propriety, standards that are routinely violated in our culture without anyone batting an eye.

When Kathy Griffin and her edgy photographer buddy chose to show holding a bloody facsimile of our president’s head, they violated basic standards of decency on multiple levels.

A decent person would never make light of the vicious slaughter of another human being, especially during an era when the most vile terrorists on Earth have made such slaughter their trademark. And no decent person would ever joke about the murder of a president.

Decency matters in a special way.

It is the basic sense of right and wrong that defines humanity at its best, the foundation of our capacity to care about others, what separates the civilized from the uncivilized.

That’s where Kathy Griffin still doesn’t get it.

“I went too far, I made a mistake and I was wrong,” she said in her apology.

No, not just mistaken or wrong – indecent.

And even these days, decency still matters.

Your feedback is welcome via email at, or you can reach out on Twitter, @kelleratlarge.


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