Parallels-Trump and McCarthy???????????????
Re-examing the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator
By ARTHUR HERMAN
Re-examing the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator
By ARTHUR HERMAN
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
When I walked into the mall in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin, on a late and lazy Sunday morning, I had no address for the place I was going. I didn't even know the name of the cemetery. The idea for doing this had come to me while my wife and I were flying to Wisconsin to visit my parents. Sitting in Chicago's O'Hare Airport during those heavy, boring moments before boarding our plane, I had suddenly decided that while I was out here, I should visit Joe McCarthy's grave.
Since I was writing a book on him, it seemed only fitting to pay a visit. It was also the fortieth anniversary of his death — a lifetime ago in my case. I was barely five months old when McCarthy had been buried on May 7, 1957, in his home town of Appleton. In one sense he has never been laid to rest. Joe McCarthy was and remains the single most despised man in American political memory — far more reviled than Aaron Burr or Richard Nixon or even George Wallace. Yet I knew that some people treat his grave as a kind of shrine. The John Birch Society, the final word in right-wing extremism and anti-Communist paranoia, made its home in Appleton — keeping vigil, as it were, beside the fallen hero's tomb (although their offices are actually in a strip mall on the other side of town). One biographer, David Oshinsky, had published a picture of McCarthy's grave strewn with flowers from well-wishers. Thanks to the Oshinsky photo, I had an idea what the headstone looked like. My problem, since I hadn't brought any of my notes with me, was to find out exactly where it was.
McCarthy's grave. A shrine to die-hard supporters. A milestone of justice to his enemies. ("Joe McCarthy's death," Daniel Boorstin had growled to me when we had had lunch at the Cosmos Club a few weeks earlier, "isn't that the fifth proof for the existence of God?") The term enemies seems harsh for describing McCarthy's detractors and critics more than forty years after his death. But the bald truth is that the term does capture the spirit of their attacks, both then and now.
"Senator McCarthy died yesterday in Washington," wrote the English newspaper News Chronicle in May 1957. "America was the cleaner by his fall, and is cleaner by his death." When Richard Rovere would publish his dark masterpiece, Senator Joe McCarthy, two years later, he asserted that, "like Hitler, McCarthy was a screamer, a political thug, a master of the mob," and that he "usurped executive and judicial authority whenever the fancy struck him." As for McCarthy's supporters, "the bat-haunted Minute Women of the U.S.A., to the Texas millionaires, to the China Lobby, to the 'hard' anti-Communist intelligentsia of New York," they came to McCarthy "from the outmost fringes, where grievances and anxieties were the strongest and the least grounded in reason; where the passion for authoritarian leadership was greatest; where the will to hate and condemn and punish could most easily be transformed into political action."
Rovere was a journalist and the quintessential liberal anti-Communist of that era. He despised the vicious and narrow-minded totalitarian spirit communism represented, but he and other liberals thought they saw the same spirit among their fellow Americans on the political right. McCarthyism was part of "a popular revolt against the upper classes," as Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons put it, and Rovere for one had no doubt about which side he himself was on. He had written a series of devastating pieces on McCarthy for the New Yorker and had crossed swords with him more than once. Yet he did not for a moment believe that his own personal involvement in those events disqualified him from passing historical judgment on the era or the man. Joe McCarthy, Rovere concluded, had never actually believed in the monstrous crusade he had set in motion; anticommunism, patriotism, the Catholic church, were all tools for self-promotion, never sacred causes. "To McCarthy, everything was profane." He had some decent instincts — "who doesn't?" Rovere had to add — but "in the mirror, McCarthy must have seen and recognized a fraud."
Have more recent commentators changed their perspective? Try William O'Neill (in American High: The Years of Confidence 1945-1960): "Dishonesty was the best policy to McCarthy until the bitter end." Or John Patrick Diggins: "A consummate demagogue, McCarthy played upon cold war emotions and made charges so fantastic that frightened people believed the worst." Or Michael Barone: "McCarthy was a pathological liar, an uninformed and obscure politician with certain demagogic gifts" (that classic word again, the favorite for describing McCarthy's rapport with his constituents). Or Paul Johnson (in Modern Times): "He was not a serious politician but an adventurer, who treated politics as a game." Or, David Halberstam (in The Fifties): "He instinctively knew how to brush aside the protests of his witnesses, how to humiliate vulnerable, scared people. In the end, he produced little beyond fear and headlines."
Even those who have belatedly recognized that some of what McCarthy said and did had genuine merit cannot resist joining in. In a 1996 piece that appeared in the Washington Post, provocatively titled "Was McCarthy Right About the Left," Nicholas von Hoffman acknowledged that McCarthy's charges did rest against a background of genuine Communist subversion and of liberal excuses for it, but still felt it necessary to add that he was "a loutish, duplicitous bully, who carried, not the names of Reds but bottles of hootch in his briefcase." And in their careful, painstaking summary of new evidence about the Communist Party of the United States taken from Soviet archives, which definitively shows that it was secretly financed by the Soviet Union and helped to support the KGB's espionage activities, historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr were quick to add, "None of this, however, offers any vindication for Senator McCarthy, or McCarthyism" — a judgment I will leave to readers to assess by the time they finish this book.
In short, McCarthy remains what the Germans would call vogelfrei — the "free bird" everyone and anyone is free to take a shot at, even forty years after his death. Today he exists in most people's imagination almost solely as an established icon of evil. In fact, when people learned that I was doing a biography of McCarthy, a standard response was, "Who are you going to write about next? Adolf Hitler?"
In retrospect, McCarthy's disgrace and obloquy has come at a certain price to historical truth. He has become so taboo a figure, someone presented only in Rovere-style caricature rather than flesh and blood, that confusion and ignorance about what he did and the times in which he operated are widespread. Books like David Caute's The Great Fear, which implicitly compared the anti-Communist crusade of the fifties to Stalin's Great Terror, or Ellen Schrecker's Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, can portray the entire period in the most terrifyingly nightmarish colors, and be believed. So part of dispelling the myths about Joe McCarthy has to include dispelling the myths about the 1950s and the so-called red scare.
We need to remember that during the entire period, from 1947 to 1958, no American citizens were interrogated without benefit of legal counsel, none was arrested or detained without due judicial process, and no one went to jail without trial. As George Kennan, no admirer of the investigations, stated, "Whoever could get his case before a court was generally assured of meeting there with a level of justice no smaller than at any time in recent American history." All through the "worst" of the McCarthy period, the Communist Party itself was never outlawed, membership in the party was never declared a crime, and it continued to maintain public offices, publish books and the Daily Worker, and recruit new members (admittedly a tough sell by then).
In fact, most of what people ordinarily mean when they talk about the "red scare" — the House Un-American Activities Committee; anti-Communist probes into Hollywood, labor unions, and America's schools and universities; the Rosenberg trial; blacklisting in the media and schoolteachers fired for disloyalty — had nothing to do with McCarthy and he had nothing to do with them (although when asked, he generally approved of them, as most other Americans did). McCarthy's own committee in the Senate, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which he chaired for less than two years, had a specific duty to investigate communism in the federal government and among government employees. It had done so before he became chairman, and it did so after he left, under Senator John McClellan and Bobby Kennedy. The men and women McCarthy targeted, rightly or wrongly, as Communists or Communist sympathizers all shared that single characteristic: they were federal employees and public servants, and therefore, McCarthy and his supporters argued, they ought be held accountable to a higher standard than other American citizens.
That fact tends to get lost when historians dwell exclusively on the stories of harassment, professional disgrace, and other indignities suffered as a result of McCarthy's and other anti-Communist investigations. Dalton Trumbo, Dashiell Hammett, Howard Fast, Paul Robeson, Steve Nelson, Frances Farmer, and Lillian Hellman appear in standard treatments of the period in the same way in which the names of martyrs grace the pages of histories of the early church. Their personal ordeals are constantly presented as proof that America in those days must have been in the grip of an anti-Communist hysteria and a "witch-hunt." (In order not to be left out, Hellman told her own tale of woe in a short book of breathtaking dishonesty, entitled Scoundrel Time.) The best and most generous estimate is that during the entire decade of the red scare, ten thousand Americans lost their jobs because of their past or present affiliation with the Communist Party or one of its auxiliary organizations. Of those who lost their jobs, two thousand worked in the government, and in perhaps forty cases McCarthy himself was directly or indirectly responsible for their being fired. In only one case — that of Owen Lattimore — can anyone make the argument that McCarthy's allegations led to any actual legal proceedings, and there a judge eventually threw out most of the indictment. Paradoxically, the fact that McCarthy never sent anyone to prison is also turned against him; opponents claimed that during his entire career, he never actually exposed a single spy or Communist — a claim that is manifestly untrue, as we will see.
In fact, the number of people who did spend time in prison remained small. A grand total of 108 Communist Party members were convicted under the antisubversion provisions of the Smith Act, which Congress passed in 1941 (long before McCarthy was a member) and applied as equally to Nazi and fascist organizations as it did to Communists. Another twenty Communist Party members were imprisoned under state and local laws. Fewer than a dozen Americans went to jail for espionage activities (one of them being Alger Hiss, who was convicted of perjury). Exactly two were sentenced to death for conspiracy to commit espionage: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
We need to contrast all this with the three and a half million people who, according to the KGB's own official numbers, were arrested and sent to the gulag during the six years of Stalin's Great Terror, from 1935 to 1941. None had the benefit of any genuine legal protection; Stalin's secret police seized, interrogated, and sentenced the lot. The KGB states that of that number, 681,692 were executed in 1937-1938 alone. Taken with the four or five million people who died in Stalin's Great Famine of 1932-1933, the total number of human beings executed, exiled, imprisoned, or starved to death in those years comes to ten to eleven million. These are official KGB numbers released at the end of the cold war. They are almost certainly low. And during all the years when this was taking place, men and women like Trumbo, Robeson, and Hellman insisted that Stalin was the just and compassionate father of his people, asserted that Soviet citizens enjoyed a freedom and happiness unknown in American society, and celebrated the Soviet Union as the model society for the future. Others, such as Julius Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, Judith Coplon, Martin Sobell, and Steve Nelson, willingly served the Stalinist regime, as other espionage agents or as part of the Communist underground apparatus.
In the 1970s, it became fashionable to deny or at least avoid mentioning this part of the historical context in which McCarthy lived and breathed. If McCarthy was guilty, the reasoning goes, then those he tormented must be innocent. David Oshinsky could publish a 597-page biography of McCarthy that contained exactly one and a half pages on the Communist Party. As late as 1994, in The Era of McCarthyism, Ellen Schrecker could dismiss the charge that Julius Rosenberg gave atomic secrets to the Soviets as "uncertain," and present the Rosenbergs' conviction and execution in 1951 as just another example of anti-Communist hysteria.
Today we know better. Archival materials from the former Soviet Union have revealed that Stalin's intentions were aggressively malign and expansionist, just as America's coldest cold warriors had believed. We now know that Mao Tse-tung was not a progressive nationalist forced into the Soviet camp by American hostility and incomprehension, as revisionist scholars in the seventies like to pretend, but was a brutal and dedicated Communist who enthusiastically embraced Stalin from the beginning. Historians J. E. Haynes, Harvey Klehr, Ronald Radosh, Allan Weinstein, and Alexander Vassiliev have used new declassified American materials as well as Soviet sources to lay to rest any doubts about the Soviet Union's espionage activities, as well as the Communist Party's active support of it.
The declassified Venona decrypts have revealed to the public the full extent and depth of Soviet spying in America and proved that fears of Russian espionage networks at work in the highest reaches of the government were not fantasy but sober fact. Meanwhile, independent sources from iron curtain Hungary have confirmed Alger Hiss's role as a Soviet spy, just as Russian sources (including his former KGB case officer) have finally definitively established that Julius Rosenberg was a central figure in the Soviet spy network (although the importance of the material he provided on the atomic bomb, and the degree of his wife Ethel's involvement, is still under debate). Even the truth about Owen Lattimore, the most famous of McCarthy's "victims," has finally come out, thanks to a former Chinese espionage agent's memoirs and declassified FBI files, which go a long way to vindicate McCarthy's original charges. In retrospect, the cause McCarthy made his own — anticommunism — has proved to be more valid and durable than the basic assumptions of his anti-anti-Communist critics.
So in the midst of all this revision and reevaluation of the period and the issues at stake, what has happened to McCarthy himself? Virtually nothing. Even the professional historians who know better have shied away from attempting any major reassessment of McCarthy's place in the history of the cold war. The result is that his real role in the story of cold war anticommunism, and his place in the making of modern American political culture, remains unexplored and unexplained. In spite of everything, the old taboos and the old myths still hold.
I first encountered them growing up as a teenager in Wisconsin. Joe McCarthy was the Dairy State's dirty little secret. How could one of the most progressive states in the union, the original home of "Fighting Bob" La Follette, have sent that man to the U.S. Senate not once but twice, and by substantial margins? There were vague dark hints about his support among Wisconsin's German-American farmers, who had rallied around him when he defended Nazi war criminals early in his senate career — which helped to feed the notion that McCarthy and his supporters were cryptofascists with neo-Nazi leanings. But presumably that same Wisconsin voter base which sent McCarthy to the Senate also voted for his predecessor, Robert La Follette, Jr., and then for his successor, William Proxmire. Hardly radical right-wingers. What had happened? Again, no one seemed inclined to supply me with any answers.
Now, two decades later, visiting Appleton, and McCarthy's grave, seemed a good place to start.
I went over to a phone booth near the mall entrance and glanced at the telephone directory. It listed two Catholic cemeteries. Which one: St. Joseph's or St. Mary's? I decided to try St. Joseph's and asked the elderly concierge sitting forlornly at the information desk (the mall shops were not open yet). He was heavyset, with a slow, shy manner typical of mid-western males.
"How do I get to St. Joseph's cemetery?" It turned out he knew but didn't really know. It was the sort of encounter you often have when traveling: natives who try to be helpful without being forthcoming. So after a minute or two, I decided on a different tack.
"I'm looking for the cemetery where Joe McCarthy is buried."
At first, there was no expression. Then a slow, sly smile started from the corner of his mouth and spread across his face. He leaned forward and actually got out of his chair with excitement — clearly this was going to make his weekend. I had instantly acquired a gleeful ally.
"Lemme call my wife," he said with the same complicitous smile. "She'll know." He was dialing the number as my wife came back after looking in the mall window shops. I turned to her, barely containing my pleasure. "He's calling his wife. She knows where the grave is." Beth's eyes opened wide. I don't know what she expected from this impromptu pilgrimage — certainly not this kind of instant service.
He hung up. His wife wasn't home. But now he was involved in the hunt too, so he asked: "You gonna be around for a while? Lemme find out for you."
When we came back ten minutes later, he had two numbers for me but nothing else. He had called St. Joseph's cemetery and the parish house. No answer. He was as crestfallen as I was. Then he glanced behind me and said, "Hey!"
He had stopped a slight man in his sixties wearing a straw hat who was on his way to McDonald's for an early lunch (it was now 11:30). "Where's Joe McCarthy buried?" he called out. The other man said without hesitation, "In St. Mary's cemetery," and then looked at me.
"You sure? Not St. Joseph's?" the concierge asked.
"Yeah, I'm sure — I been out there a couple times. Right down near the river. Real pretty spot."
Getting directions turned out to be long, and involved, with each man describing the route to St. Mary's from a slightly different starting point, while I was trying to introduce a third starting point, namely, where our car was parked. Finally the concierge asked me, not unkindly, to be quiet for a minute and he turned to get his bearings straight with the man in the straw hat. I had no idea who this other man was, except that he was an old Appleton resident, obviously a McCarthy fan ("I go down there every year or so," he confided to me), and like the concierge, a Roman Catholic. Because Joe McCarthy, for better or worse, was one of their own.
I had grown up in a different mid-western tradition. Mine was Minnesota Scandinavian, either Lutheran or freethinking and sometimes both, and politically progressive. When my Lutheran grandmother had learned that I was studying Latin at college, she began to worry that I had fallen in with the wrong crowd — meaning Catholics, possibly even Jesuits, who might try to woo me into the arms of the Scarlet Woman. I had been taught to think of the Roman Catholic church as a reactionary and authoritarian institution — as witness the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, Cardinal Francis Spellman (deeply detested in our house), William F. Buckley, Jr. — and Joe McCarthy.
But central Wisconsin, where I grew up, had a large Polish population, and although I didn't realize it at the time, it gave me my first clues for understanding the McCarthy phenomenon. At school I met the sort of working-class Catholics whose fathers and mothers had been McCarthy's bedrock of support. It became a familiar yet always foreign world: the world of Knights of Columbus and the Holy Name Society for Catholic men, and rosary groups for the women. It was a world of strange foods (kielbasa, golabki, and punchkas), of huge and elaborate weddings at churches illuminated by stained glass windows and topped by onion-shaped domes, with polka bands that played songs with titles like "Oj nasza Kasia" (O My Katy) and "Hupi Shupi Polka." There were classmates who had eight or nine brothers and sisters, some of whom attended church schools they called "St. Joe's" or "St. Pete's," and whose father worked for the paper mill and whose grandfather was named Roman or Casimir. Later those classmates went to the Catholic high school, with the very un-midwestern name of Pacelli, while still later one of their sisters might very occasionally take vows at the convent at the north end of town on Maria Drive.
In 1950, the year McCarthy gave his Wheeling, West Virginia, speech and launched himself into national prominence, nearly half of all churchgoers in Wisconsin were Catholics. His neighbors in the township of Grand Chute where he was born were Dutch Catholics, rather than Polish or Irish. Irishmen were rare in eastern Wisconsin — neighbors called the McCarthy family "the Irish settlement" — but there was a strong bond that drew them together, as fellow Catholics in a Protestant country that viewed them with fear and suspicion. Since the Irish were the first large-scale Catholic immigrants, they served as principal targets of American antipopery.
Unlike America's Jewish immigrants, of whom more than three-quarters were skilled workers, the Irish came from an overwhelmingly rural background. In the nineteenth century they had had to take jobs at the very bottom of the economic ladder and became caught up in urban political machines such as New York's Tammany Hall. To high-minded Anglo-Saxon Protestant observers, Irish politics was synonymous with corruption. "A more improvident, heedless, and dishonest class of people never defiled the fair face of the earth." Antebellum New Orleans even made up a rhyme about the Irish:
Ten thousand micks
Swung their picks
To dig the New Canal.
But the choleray
Was stronger'n they.
An' twice it killed them all.
Swung their picks
To dig the New Canal.
But the choleray
Was stronger'n they.
An' twice it killed them all.
"What ought to be surprising about the American Irish," writes Andrew Greeley, "is not that they have not been quite as socially and financially successful as the Jews, but that they have been successful at all." They did it by embracing what John Courtney Murray called "the American proposition," the principles of religious and economic liberty, of science and technological progress, and of democracy and the separation of church and state. For Irish Catholics of McCarthy's generation, anticommunism became one more way of erasing an ancient stigma. Having been unjustly accused of serving one secret conspiracy against America, they would dedicate themselves to rooting out another.
That determination to succeed in a hostile environment was one of the bonds that drew together Joe McCarthy and another prominent Irish Catholic family in the fifties, the Kennedys. Robert Kennedy had joined McCarthy's staff in 1953 at the behest of his father, the senator's keen admirer. Like McCarthy, Joseph Kennedy was a former Roosevelt Democrat and a fervent anti-Communist. He often invited McCarthy to stop by for drinks at the Kennedy house at Palm Beach and to stay at the family compound at Hyannis Port. The senior Kennedy's view of politics, and of life, was much like McCarthy's: "It's not what you are that counts, but what people think you are." McCarthy became a minor figure in the Kennedy circle. To the ex-ambassador's delight, he dated two of the Kennedy daughters, Patricia and Eunice, who discovered "he had a certain raw wit and charm when he had not had too much to drink," as Eunice later put it. Joe also played shortstop in family softball games (he did so badly that the Kennedys eventually had to bench him).
Robert Kennedy served McCarthy loyally as assistant counsel for his Subcommittee on Investigations, until a personal quarrel with the chief counsel, Roy Cohn, forced him to quit. But he and Joe remained close, and Joe McCarthy stood as godfather for Bobby and Ethel's first child. One day after McCarthy's censure by the Senate in 1954, Bobby was sailing on the Potomac with a group of reporters. He started defending McCarthy against their criticisms. "Why do you reporters...feel the way you do?" he wanted to know. "OK, Joe's methods may be a little rough, but after all, his goal was to expose Communists in government — a worthy goal. So why are you reporters so critical of his methods?" Even after his own conversion to left-to-center liberalism, he refused to disown or even criticize his old boss. "A very complicated character," he would muse to himself years later. Robert Kennedy had seen in America's Grand Inquisitor a man who, for all his glaring faults, had "wanted so desperately to be liked."
John Kennedy's views, on communism and the Soviet threat, were not so different from McCarthy's either. Although a loyal Democrat, Kennedy had also bashed the Truman administration for its dismal China record. One night in February 1952 he heard a speaker at Harvard's Spree Club denounce McCarthy in the same breath as Alger Hiss. Kennedy shot back, "How dare you couple the name of a great American patriot with that of a traitor!" Later he would back the Communist Control Act, a measure that went far beyond anything McCarthy had ever proposed, by virtually outlawing the Communist Party in the United States. During the debate on McCarthy's censure in 1954, while most Democrats lined up against him Kennedy warned that censure might have serious repercussions for "the social fabric of this country." And when the actual censure vote came, John Kennedy carefully contrived to be in the hospital for a back operation, so that he would not have to cast a vote against a man who was wildly popular with not only his father but his Irish and Italian constituents.
In many ways, McCarthy and John Kennedy represented the two divergent paths available to Irish Catholic politicians for success in what was still a predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant nation. McCarthy never lost track of his roots. He attended mass every Sunday, built strong friendships with priests and clerics, and remained a strict Catholic. John Kennedy, by contrast, was embarrassed by the presence of priests and the outward trappings of Catholicism. He had attended Choate and Harvard rather than Catholic schools, while McCarthy was a graduate of the Jesuit university at Marquette. Kennedy avoided doing or saying anything in public that would make him identifiably or stereotypically "Irish" (although in private he enjoyed sitting at the piano and singing traditional Irish ballads with his sisters). Early on he had decided his destiny lay with the dominant eastern political establishment. He forged links to its key institutions: Harvard, the mainstream press, and groups like the Council on Foreign Relations and Americans for Democratic Action. Six years after McCarthy's censure, Kennedy ran for president as the standard-bearer for that establishment liberalism. He surrounded himself with its "best and brightest" — some of the same men, as it happened, Joe McCarthy had spent his career attacking.
By contrast, Joe McCarthy was what a knowing observer would call "shanty Irish," as opposed to "lace curtain Irish," which John Kennedy's mother Rose Fitzgerald epitomized. McCarthy was authentic working class. His eldest brother, Steve, was a factory worker; another a local auctioneer; the third a truck driver. It was only in law school that he finally shed his broad Irish brogue. The grandiloquent gesture, the blarney, the do-or-die bravado, the inability to forget slights and humiliations, as well as the drinking and affinity for lost causes: it is not possible to understand McCarthy's career without this ethnic component.
The other side of that Catholic and Irish-American experience, however, was the desperate need for assimilation. The Irish wanted above all to be part of the mainstream of American life and to enjoy its most dazzling promise, that of personal success. Success was the best revenge on one's supposed social betters. That too was part of the McCarthy reality.
If Joe McCarthy had ever paused to consider his life as a whole, he would have looked at it as a typical American success story: son of a poor Wisconsin dirt farmer — "I'm just a farm boy," he disarmingly told the audience at a debate in his first successful statewide campaign — to U.S. senator. It engendered in him a deep emotional commitment to the nation that had enabled him to rise up from obscurity and a sense of pride, even hubris, that blinded him to the downside of his success. When talking about him, Robert Kennedy used to compare McCarthy's career to a toboggan ride: "It was so exciting and exhilarating as he went downhill that it didn't matter to him if he hit a tree at the bottom."
Here the better comparison is not with John Kennedy (or even Richard Nixon, whom he resembled in certain other ways), but with another Senate colleague, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was Johnson who arranged for the Senate to censure McCarthy in December 1954, the move that effectively ended McCarthy's career. But in the end they shared more than they differed.
They were both big men, homely, even ugly, in appearance, with an intense physicality that some people found reassuring, but others intimidating and even repulsive. Both had a capacity for generosity, and for an explosive temper and incredible bullying. Both drank to excess. Both did not hesitate to lie for political effect. Both, in fact, did lie about their war record because it had been good politics to do so, and for both success in politics was their final measure of themselves as human beings.
Johnson and McCarthy reflected the degree to which politics in post-New Deal America had become a form of self-fashioning. By devoting himself to electoral politics, a man from a poor or provincial background could transform himself into someone new, and even become a substantial player on the national stage. McCarthy had risen from county circuit judge to the Senate at age thirty-eight; LBJ became minority leader at age forty-six. In terms of their origins, they stood at the opposite pole from what was then called ESA — Eastern Socially Attractive types who normally ran Washington. Yet through simple command of majorities at the ballot box, McCarthy and Johnson made themselves their equals and earned their respect — and in McCarthy's case, their fear. Like Johnson, McCarthy had had to rely on powerful local patrons in order to get launched in the political arena. In McCarthy's case, it was Wisconsin political boss Tom Coleman and various wealthy Milwaukee businessmen; in Johnson's case, it was the millionaire Brown Brothers of Texas. Like Johnson, McCarthy had lost his first run at the Senate, and in the same year: 1944. Like Johnson, he then won office by upsetting a major figure in their state's political establishment. For Johnson, this was former governor Coke Stevenson; for McCarthy, Robert La Follette, Jr.
Both men would also be haunted by their ruthless, single-minded pursuit of their ambitions. Johnson's razor-thin victory over Stevenson (by only eighty-three votes) was almost certainly fraudulent and earned him the derisive nickname "Landslide Lyndon." McCarthy became the "Pepsi-Cola Kid" because of his cozy relationship with the soft drink company, and his use of the anti-Communist issue for personal publicity earned him as many dedicated enemies as it did fanatical supporters.
Both men judged the world according to a harsh masculine standard. The world was divided into boys and men, and they knew to which category they wanted to belong. There were men who fought for what they believed and didn't back down, and those who did back down. There were those who were soft on issues like communism, and those who were not. That standard was reflected in McCarthy's fight against the "silk handkerchief liberals" who frustrated his efforts to ferret out Communists in government, and his push to get the "queers" as well as the "reds" out of the State Department and other government agencies. It turned up in Johnson's later campaign against Communist aggression abroad, in Southeast Asia. In the face of opposition, you stood tough and hit back, whether you were fighting the State Department or Ho Chi Minh. You accepted the rules of engagement (as did McCarthy, the former boxer) and fought with all your heart.
In the end, the cold war proved to be a point of no return for both. How strange, yet appropriate, how ironic that the man who had destroyed Joe McCarthy over domestic communism would himself be destroyed in less than fifteen years, over Vietnam. However, the wreckers in this case came not from the right but the left, and from within the ranks of his beloved Senate. The very people who had urged him on in the McCarthy censure, like William Fulbright and Wayne Morse and Mike Mansfield, would then turn against him and condemn him for his war against communism in Southeast Asia. Ironic, too, that another Irish Catholic senator, Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota, would be instrumental in his destruction, while Joe McCarthy's own successor, William Proxmire, became one of President Johnson's most bitter and effective critics.
Less than a decade after Joe McCarthy had been interred in St. Mary's cemetery, Lyndon Johnson would learn what it was like to be the target of hostile liberals and an unsympathetic national press. People would regularly attack him as a murderer, a tyrant, and a psychopath, and compare him to Hitler, much as they had McCarthy. A popular Broadway play, MacBird, by Barbara Garson, even implied that Johnson had murdered John Kennedy in order to seize power, a theme later picked up by various conspiracy theorists and exploited in Oliver Stone's film JFK.
In 1968 cartoonist Jules Feiffer published LBJ Lampooned. In the introduction to his grotesque caricatures, Feiffer revealed a great deal about not just liberal attacks on Johnson, but the earlier campaign against McCarthy as well. The "secret ingredient" to good cartooning, Feiffer said, was hate — "not personal hate," he added, "but professional hate: the intensity of conviction that comes to a craftsman's work when he has made the decision to kill; a commitment to shun all political and behavioral complexities, so that the subject becomes...purely and simply, a demon."
Finally, the directions got settled and the man in the straw hat got back to the business of finding lunch. People were beginning to filter in as the shops began to get ready to open. My new-found friend was reluctant to see me go. I had obviously brightened up his otherwise routine day, and he took the opportunity to ask some questions of his own, and to reminisce.
"So are you studying him in school?" I explained that I was writing a book on McCarthy for The Free Press. Then I asked him if he remembered McCarthy at all.
"Sure, I remember him," he laughed. I didn't ask if he had voted for him. The concierge would have to be at least sixty-five (or born in 1931) to have done so, since the last time McCarthy last faced the voters was in 1952.
"Drank a lot, didn't he?" he asked. Yes, I said, he did, and I added that in my opinion his alcoholism was the principal cause of his downfall.
"But he married a pretty woman." That was a reference to Jean Kerr, who had buried her husband down by the river in May 1957. Smart, attractive, ambitious, and twenty years younger than her husband, she had come from a well-to-do Washington family, conservative and upright, and she had helped to steer the man who had voted for Roosevelt not twice, not thrice, but four times, into the conservative Republican camp. To the farm boy from Grand Chute township, with his five o'clock shadow and preference for working in sweat-stained shirt sleeves, she added a touch of class, even glamor. George Washington University had voted her the most beautiful girl on campus in 1945. Unlike her husband, she was remarkably photogenic, even on the day she attended her husband's memorial service at the Capitol, when his body lay in state in the Senate chamber and his colleagues paid him their belated respects.
As I discovered, the real story of Joe McCarthy is also Jean Kerr's story. When I told a friend, a member of Washington's old social establishment (she had been a bridesmaid at Margaret Truman's wedding), that I was writing a book on Joe McCarthy, she amazed me by telling me that Jean had been a sorority sister. Everyone, she said, had liked and admired her. None of her old Washington friends could understand why she had married a man they all regarded as a monster. But Jean's reasons had been as much political as personal. She was more than just a pretty face. She served as his chief staffer, wrote speeches for him, and even a book: his 1952 apologia, McCarthyism, The Fight for America, is largely her composition, with the help of friends J.B. and Ruth Matthews. She also had a hand in McCarthy's notorious attack on General George Marshall.
Jean believed in playing hardball, harder at times than Joe himself. She, not Joe, was responsible for the infamous "composite" photo showing Senator Millard Tydings cozying up to Communist Party boss Earl Browder, and while McCarthy admitted the attempt to smear his old nemesis from Maryland had gone too far, Jean was unapologetic. Joe's enemies were her enemies. They managed to pay her back with interest, since she had to endure constant rumors that her husband was a secret homosexual, and Herblock cartoons that ridiculed her husband so cruelly they left her in tears. Later she had to shield him from public scrutiny as his drinking ran out of control and his health declined. As in so many similar cases, in trying to prevent her husband from becoming an alcoholic, she became one herself. She would also act as the careful guardian of his memory, even long after his death and after she had remarried, declaring his papers off limits to snoopy and usually unsympathetic biographers and historians.
But my concierge friend was still reminiscing. "That senator from Arkansas. Tall and gravely voice. He really went after him, didn't he?" After a moment, I realized he was talking about J. William Fulbright, Democratic senator, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and nearly secretary of state under Kennedy. He and Joe McCarthy were long-standing adversaries. Articulate, erratic, complex, Fulbright was precisely the sort of cerebral, self-doubting liberal the brash and macho McCarthy despised, just as McCarthy represented a side of America that Fulbright could not stomach. Fulbright was a disciple of Dean Acheson, McCarthy's chief bête noire, and member of the Metropolitan Club. As David Halberstam later observed, "He was a public official, publicly elected, and yet he seemed to be an ally of the elitists, sharing their view of the private nature of national security." McCarthy used to ridicule him by calling him "Senator Half-bright." Once a senate employee caught Fulbright in a rage about McCarthy: "that SOB's referred to me so often as Halfbright, that the country is partially beginning to believe it!" Yet one day Fulbright astonished one of his own staffers, by remarking, "You know, considering McCarthy is such an SOB, he's a very interesting personality. You know, I enjoy him in the locker room."
And liberal though he was on most matters, on the matter of race Fulbright was a stalwart segregationist and an ardent opponent of civil rights for black Americans. McCarthy took the opposite view. His position on race and ethnicity was recognizably "liberal" in a fifties sense and even in a later sense (associates recalled him campaigning as vigorously in black neighborhoods in Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities as in white ones), although he was dead before the issue really became part of the nation's agenda.
Fulbright the liberal segregationist versus McCarthy the color-blind Republican -- a strange juxtaposition, but perhaps not so strange. Most Republicans in the fifties, including Taftites, were aware that theirs was the party of Lincoln and Reconstruction, while Fulbright had learned to support his fellow Southern Democrats on Jim Crow in order to consolidate his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Afterward, with America mired in Vietnam and Fulbright now leading the charge to get the country out, he challenged Joseph Rauh of the Americans for Democratic Action (who had opposed Fulbright's hopes of heading the Department of State) to admit that he had done the right thing by his devil's bargain on Jim Crow, in order to secure the Foreign Relations Committee. Rauh felt it was an unanswerable proposition — "to do wrong in order to do right." Yet that was precisely what McCarthy had done in overstepping the bounds of truth in his fight against communism — and what Rauh himself had done, as we will see, in the Paul Hughes case.
The battle between McCarthy and his adversaries was not a simplistic confrontation between right and wrong, or good and evil, or even between the righteous and the damned. It was a complex struggle, with strange twists and ambiguities, and at its heart lay two very different visions of what the cold war meant and how it should be fought.
For Joe McCarthy, the struggle with Soviet communism was a matter of victory or defeat. There could be no middle ground. Fulbright, like so many fellow liberals, could not and would not see it in such forthright terms. Fulbright himself nourished secret doubts about whether the United States could really resist what seemed to him an inevitable tide of historical decline, of which the rise of communism was only one part. Those doubts about America's ability to fulfill its self-imposed global mission would eventually spill over into his opposition to the Vietnam War, and filled the pages of his book on American foreign policy, The Arrogance of Power. Both McCarthy and Fulbright agreed that the fate of civilization hung in the balance in the cold war. McCarthy believed that in the end, it and America would survive; Fulbright, in his own sardonic, cynical way, did not.
In this sense, politics was not a game to Joe McCarthy. In the glare of the cold war, the stakes seemed vast. He was convinced that the "liberals" of his day — the heirs to progressivism and New Deal Democracy — had failed in that fight. He believed in many of the things they did. Unlike some of his right-wing Republican colleagues, he saw no problem with an activist government and never challenged the New Deal's social welfare programs; he took a broad view on civil rights and race. In fact, when he came to the Senate in 1947, newspapers had originally described him as a moderate, until he took up the domestic communism issue. But it was on precisely that issue that Democrats and liberals had failed the American people, McCarthy believed, and had revealed their true colors, and he was going to prove it. In trying to do so, he sealed his own doom, as both a man and a historical figure. In the end, the principal and most pathetic victim of McCarthyism would be — McCarthy himself.
I thanked my friend the concierge and got ready to set off. He wished me well, and gave a last smile: "That Joe McCarthy — he sure shook things up, didn't he?"
Yes, I had to admit, he certainly did.
After lunch, my wife and I were ready to make our way to St. Mary's cemetery. On the way we drove through East Appleton, which had been the affluent part of town in McCarthy's day and is still studded with large Victorian houses and beautifully manicured lawns and shrubs. The elegant turreted and porticoed homes stand in striking contrast to the shabby clapboard farmhouses and dirt roads of Grand Chute township, where McCarthy was born and raised. East Appleton is also the town's intellectual center. Lawrence University, founded in 1847, sits quietly and confidently in its midst, a picture-perfect image of a liberal arts college. Its disdain, like that of East Appleton, for Senator Joe McCarthy, home town boy, was legendary. Lawrence's president, Nathan Pusey, sponsored one of the very first anti-McCarthy books, entitled The McCarthy Record, and helped to spread the rumor (which had no foundation) that McCarthy liked to carry around a copy of Mein Kampf.
Needless to say, McCarthy did not attend Lawrence College. He left school at fourteen to start his own business, raising chickens and buying a truck to drive the eggs to market. Years later, Edwin Bayley remembered how he and his East Appleton friends spent their leisurely Saturday mornings at the downtown YMCA. As they went home for lunch, they regularly passed Joe McCarthy (who had been up before dawn) with his bib overalls and his Irish brogue — "a hick," as Bayley would recall — and would yell good-natured insults at him as they rode by on their bikes. Joe would yell back in the same spirit, and chase them as they circled him. Big, burly, with a hearty, energetic manner, Joe McCarthy was someone people noticed: "I can't remember how we knew his name, but we did." Later, as editor of the Milwaukee Journal, Bayley would become one of McCarthy's bitterest opponents.
St. Mary's turned out to be a surprisingly small cemetery, a strip of level land running along the bluffs overlooking the Fox River. My wife and I got out of the car, Beth carrying the camera, and we began reading the headstones. Many, I noticed, had Dutch names — the names of McCarthy's father's and mother's neighbors in Grand Chute, descendants of the Dutch Catholic settlers who had arrived in eastern Wisconsin in the 1840s and carved out their farms from the surrounding wilderness just as Joe's grandfather had done. Many of the other names were Polish, German, or Irish. In fact, it took some time to sort through all the headstones bearing the name McCarthy, and there were several false starts. We even found a "Joseph T. McCarthy," whose birth and death dates were near to Joe's own...until I realized he must be a cousin, the child of one of grandfather Stephen McCarthy's other sons. The McCarthys' "Irish settlement" had reproduced itself here in St. Mary's. Next came Joe's father's grave, and his mother's — with Bridget Tierney McCarthy in large letters.
Then I saw it. Sitting by itself in the warm sunshine, flanked by marble urns and a pair of evergreen bushes — these are vandalized from time to time but today they looked plain and unremarkable. We walked up to the dark gray cenotaph. It stood almost waist high, reading in large block letters, Joseph R. McCarthy, and underneath United States Senator, with the dates below, Nov. 14, 1908 and May 2, 1957. There was nothing else, no flowers or any other special votive offering. Not the martyr's shrine today. The view from the 50-foot bluff was now largely overgrown with trees and shrubs, but the man in the straw hat had been right, it was a pretty spot. McCarthy occupied it alone. No other grave, not even Jean's, interfered with its silent, almost eerie, isolation.
We paused for a moment, my wife took pictures, and she said something about the visit being a good omen. I turned for one last look and then headed for the car. Afterwards I thought about the words from the prayer said at the unveiling of McCarthy's memorial in 1959: "death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight." I realized that was true in an historical as well as a religious sense. It is now possible, forty years on, to set McCarthy's life and career against a broader and somewhat different horizon from the one he and his contemporaries had been limited to. The dark and uncertain future over which he and opponents like Rovere and Fulbright fought is now our present. Maybe it is time to try to understand what happened.
(C) 1999 Arthur Herman All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-684-83625-4