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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

In defense of principled defiance  

Aactor Kirk Douglas at his home in Beverly

Aactor Kirk Douglas at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Nov. 16, 1982. Douglas died Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020 at age 103. Credit: AP/Wally Fong

There was a time when Kirk Douglas was as big a star as there was in Hollywood. He could fill a screen with his blazing intensity, muscular good looks and, yes, that perfectly dimpled chin.

"Champion." "The Bad and the Beautiful." "Lust for Life." "Paths of Glory." "Spartacus." The list is long. 

But Douglas was a man of conscience, too. And his death last week at age 103 did more than rob America of one of its last links to Hollywood's golden age. It also took from us a man who helped end one of the darker periods in our nation's history.

The 1950s were the decade of McCarthyism, when Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy equated dissent with disloyalty and turned investigation into persecution in his oft-baseless hunt for supposed Communists. Careening down an equally reviled parallel track was the so-called Hollywood blacklist. Hundreds of people in the entertainment industry were banned from the business because they had been or were suspected of being Communists or Communist sympathizers. 

One of them was acclaimed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo kept working under aliases, but many peers lost careers. In 1960, director Otto Preminger announced that Trumbo had written the screenplay for his upcoming film "Exodus." A few months later, news broke that Douglas, producer and star of "Spartacus," had not only hired Trumbo but also would give him screen credit, Trumbo's first since 1950. When President John F. Kennedy defied an American Legion picket line to see "Spartacus" four months after it opened, the blacklist was on its way to the dustbin.

Douglas should be remembered for his principled defiance.

Since history has a way of finding and embracing echoes and reverberations, perhaps it should have been no surprise that on the very day Douglas died, another man of conscience committed another act of principled defiance.

That's when Mitt Romney took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to announce he would vote to convict President Donald Trump of abuse of power in his impeachment trial. Romney's speech stirred memories of Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith in the same chamber, delivering her "Declaration of Conscience" in rebuke of McCarthy. But the aftermath of Romney's act and Trump's acquittal, despite the Utahn's vote, warn us that other chilling echoes also reverberate today.

Look at the jackalling mob that brayed at Romney, from Donald Trump Jr. to Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz to online trolls, demanding that Romney be expelled from the Republican Party — even from the Senate, some suggested — for the sin of speaking his mind and voting his sense of right and wrong. How different is that from McCarthy's red-baiters? Their cries shadowed another by Sen. Rand Paul who, after twice being thwarted by Chief Justice John Roberts during the trial, stood on the same Senate floor and read aloud the name of the alleged whistleblower who first expressed concern about Trump's Ukraine call, exposing the whistleblower to abuse.

Look at the president who is keeping his own McCarthy-esque blacklist, a Nixon-like enemies list, for "payback," according to reports quoting Republican sources. Names on it include Romney, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler and Nancy Pelosi. Look at the Friday oustings of two impeachment witnesses, European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland and National Security Council staffer Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, as well as Vindman's twin brother, Yevgeny, also on the NSC staff.

Look at the dark language of Trump's implicit threats — like saying Schiff "has not paid the price" for impeachment. Look at the allegations made without evidence; the demonizing of political foes as vicious, sick, horrible, evil and scum; the warped and absolutist definition of loyalty; the nodding acquiescence of those who know better.

We've been here before. And people of principle took a stand. Let's hope history finds and embraces one more echo.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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