“Let us not assassinate this lad further ... have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?”
Fifty years ago, those were the words Joseph Welch, chief attorney for the U.S. Army, used to define - and thus destroy -U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a demagogue on the downhill slide, already showing the effects of heavy alcohol use.
Mr. McCarthy had taken on the Army, because one of his errand boys had been drafted, and Roy Cohn, his notorious sidekick, was furious the service wouldn't make an exception for the handsome young man. So in retaliation, Mr. McCarthy tried to smear a young lawyer in Mr. Welch's firm, implying that the attorney, who was actually a member of the Young Republicans, was a Communist.
The smear backfired. Mr. McCarthy soon lost much of his public support, and within months was censured by the U.S. Senate and stripped of his power.
I thought of those words and those events last week when I read a letter that Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest, a man who once had a bright political future, posted on his county Web site, attacking one of The Blade's most talented reporters, Dale Emch.
Mr. Emch, who covers county government, last year began to turn up stories that documented behavior on the part of the treasurer that seemed nothing short of bizarre.
His diligent reporting uncovered the fact that Mr. Kest billed the taxpayers for $9,600 in tuition and for stays in a $100-a-night hotel in Cleveland. He also used his county-provided car for other than county business, and in fact, was arrested last August for driving under the influence of alcohol in a county car.
Mr. Kest pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of reckless operation last month.
In total, $14,683 was billed to the county for various expenses related to his education.
Recently, Mr. Emch's reporting revealed that Mr. Kest was out of town for part or all of 57 percent of county workdays he was supposed to be working for the county. Serious questions were also raised about the $3,000 he ran up on his county cell phone.
Reporters don't get into this business to be popular. But Mr. Emch's stories are the sort of good, solid public interest reporting that every community needs.
Ray Kest had every right to not like it, or offer explanations. But in the long letter posted on his county Web site, and in an interview with a dubious radio personality on a low-wattage station, he accused John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, of waging a personal vendetta against him, and of using his reporter as a tool to attack and destroy Ray Kest.
“Yellow journalism,” he called it. He also seems to imply that his troubles are also somehow connected to the fact that Mr. Emch is married to the stepdaughter of the Lucas County prosecutor, whose only role in this was to ask a Common Pleas Court judge to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Mr. Kest's use of a delinquent tax fund to pay for his tuition.
All this is a smear, as this ombudsman sees it, of the sort Joe McCarthy would have engaged in. Longtime readers of this column may recall that I have criticized Mr. Block in the past for being too close to stories on the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. But in this case, he knew nothing of Ray Kest's difficulties until he read about them in the newspaper.
Had he picked up any rumors about Mr. Kest, he probably would have passed them on to the staff to be investigated. That's what editors-in-chief do.
But Mr. Emch uncovered all these stories on his own, in the course of doing his job.
“I have never talked to John about any of these stories,” Mr. Emch told me.
John Block said the same thing. Neither of them would have any reason to lie.
The idea that Mr. Block has been waging a long vendetta against Ray Kest is especially ludicrous given that three years ago, The Blade's editorial page endorsed Ray Kest for mayor. Mr. Kest's father and grandfather also worked for The Blade for many years.
However, the editorial page is completely separate from the newsgathering operation, and the two are not allowed to interfere with each other. And during that campaign, other Blade reporters discovered that Mr. Kest had huge credit card debts and published other information that raised questions about him.
In the end, he lost badly to Jack Ford, despite The Blade endorsement. Since then, the Democratic Party has decided to choose another candidate for treasurer, and his political career seems over.
None of us is perfect, and reporters know that more often than not they are in the business of bringing bad news, and people often don't want to hear it. That goes with the territory.
But what is going on here was probably best summed up Feb. 19 by Harry Barlos, president of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners.
“Any of us, when we reach the point where we've lost touch with reality, and I think this is a classic case, we deserve to either be booted out or we should have enough common sense to walk away,” he said.
Walk away, that is, without blaming others for problems for which they need to take responsibility. Edward R. Murrow quoted Shakespeare to sum up the national demagogue of his time: “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
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