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A shadow that still looms: New biography of Joe McCarthy  

  • Author and former Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye was able to tap previously unseen personal records and congressional testimony in crafting his biography of Joe McCarthy. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Author Larry Tye says “a unique strain of demogoguery” has long been a part of American life, leading to the ascension of public figures such as Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist investigations as a U.S. senator in the early 1950s spawned the term “McCarthyism,” a byword for a campaign of character assassination based on slander, innuendo and guilt by association. Library of Congress 

  • McCarthy, at right, questions U.S. Army counsel Joseph Welch, seated at far left, in a 1954 Senate hearing at which Welch famously called out McCarthy’s behavior: “At long last, have you left no sense of deceny?”  United States Senate Historical Office



Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2020

A little over 70 years ago, Joe McCarthy, speaking at a Republican Party fundraising dinner in West Virginia, held up a piece of paper and told the audience the document listed dozens of members of the Communist Party who worked for the U.S. State Department.

It was the opening salvo of a campaign that, over the next 4½ years, would make McCarthy, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, one of the most feared men in America. Claiming that whole segments of the country — government, universities, the Army, labor unions — were full of Russian agents, he led sustained Senate investigations of alleged communist infiltration that in the end cost many people their jobs and reputations.

By the time he was dethroned in 1954 — at a televised hearing, a defense attorney famously said to him, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” — McCarthy had spawned his own “ism,” as McCarthyism came to be a byword for a campaign of character assassination based on slander, innuendo and guilt by association.

And in a new biography, “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy,” former Boston Globe journalist Larry Tye offers a fresh portrait of the senator, who died at age 48 in 1957. He says the book can also shed some light on the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House, a man he calls the latest in a long line of “fanatics and hate peddlers who have tapped into America’s deepest insecurities.”

In a recent phone interview, Tye said he first thought of doing a book on McCarthy while writing his previous one on Robert F. Kennedy; Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, told him that though many viewed McCarthy as a monster, she recalled that the senator could also be “just plain fun.”

“Fun is not a word that immediately comes to mind when you think about Joe McCarthy,” said Tye, who lives on Cape Cod. “But there was a side to him many people liked … he was twice elected by decisive margins to the Senate.” At one point, Tye notes, McCarthy was voted the second most-popular politician in the U.S., trailing only President Dwight Eisenhower.

Tye was able to get access to McCarthy’s previously unseen family papers and medical records, as well as to congressional transcripts from that era that had long been kept secret, and with that he’s overturned some longstanding tenets of the McCarthy saga.

For instance, some journalists gave him the derisive nickname “Tail Gunner Joe,” disputing claims he made about his service in the Marines during World War II. Actually, writes Tye, McCarthy was “a real tail gunner and a legitimate war hero,” but one who eventually “sabotaged his own credibility by embellishing so much,” both when it came to his war records and to other aspects of his life.

Tye said his decision to write about McCarthy was clinched by Trump’s election in November 2016. He notes that Trump, while developing his real estate business in the 1970s and early 1980s, picked up many of his shady tricks and blustering style from the late Roy Cohn, a bare-knuckle lawyer who also was McCarthy’s protégé during the senator’s hunt for communists.

“If you want to understand how Donald Trump operates, the best thing to do is read a biography about Joe McCarthy,” he said.

Red menace

In his book, Tye offers interesting details of McCarthy’s early life: growing up on a hardscrabble Wisconsin farm, finishing the equivalent of four years of high school in one year, earning a law degree and then becoming a circuit judge in Wisconsin at age 29.

If not especially book smart, McCarthy was a savvy political campaigner and hustler who could turn on the charm in a rough-hewn, backslapping way, Tye says; he was also an opportunist who began his career as a Democrat and fervent New Dealer and then became a Republican to make himself more electable in a conservative state.

He upset a well-established U.S. senator in Wisconsin, Robert La Follette Jr., in the 1946 Republican primary, then easily won election to the Senate later that year. He did little to impress anyone there at first, says Tye, before latching onto communist conspiracies in the government as an issue he could ride to fame.

Yet Tye also makes clear that McCarthy wasn’t operating in a vacuum. Anti-communist sentiment in the United States dated to the 1920s, and by the late 1940s it was in full bloom. The House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating leftists, as was the FBI, and President Harry Truman had instituted mandatory background checks — known collectively as a “Loyalty Order” — on over 5 million federal employees and applicants.

Add to this the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, the fear sparked by the atomic bomb, and the dramatic Alger Hiss case — Hiss, a former State Department official, was charged with being a Russian spy in 1948 — and the atmosphere was primed for an opportunist like McCarthy to whip up further paranoia about communism, says Tye.

“Joe arguably was less well versed in foreign policy and Russian statecraft than anyone in the U.S. Senate in 1950,” he writes. “But nobody was better at reading America’s pent-up fears and feeding them.”

A sad end

McCarthy, unlike Trump, cultivated close ties with many journalists, the better to win headlines and present himself as an uber-patriot. He often leaked details from his closed-door Senate hearings, embellishing or lying outright about the testimony to make the cases appear far more substantial than they were, Tye says.

Perhaps less well known, the author writes, is that McCarthy also aimed to unveil homosexuals working for the government, though rumors circulated that he himself was gay.

One early target of his communist investigations was Owen Lattimore, a political scientist from John Hopkins University who sometimes worked as a consultant for the State Department. McCarthy claimed Lattimore, who’d once been an advisor to former Chinese leader Chiang Kia-shek, was “a top Russian spy,” but there was so little evidence for this claim that even some fellow Republicans shook their heads in disbelief, and all charges were eventually dropped against him.

Yet the furor cost the professor any future work with the State Department, Tye notes, and he eventually left to teach in Great Britain; his students were blacklisted. Lattimore summed up the experience like this: “McCarthy is a master not only of the big lie but of the middle-sized lie and the little ball-bearing lie that rolls around and around and helps the wheels of the lie machinery to turn over.”

That case was emblematic of much of McCarthy’s work, says Tye. He uncovered no high-ranking communists in the government; as former U.S. Senate historian Donald Richie told Tye, McCarthy “couldn’t tell the difference between communists involved in espionage and government subversion and those who just organized for unions.”

The senator was far more effective, Tye says, in intimidating fellow politicians and browbeating, from a distance, an uncountable number of ordinary citizens “into a tongue-tied silence” — in the process stifling the open discussion of issues that’s supposed to be a hallmark of our democracy.

Tye also interviewed Northampton resident Robert Meeropol, one of the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who suggests the atmosphere created by McCarthy’s campaign may well have helped convict his parents, executed in 1953 for conspiracy to leak atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. “It’s a little more nuanced than direct cause and effect, but it’s pretty damn close,” said Meeropol.

There’s a lot of detail in “Demagogue,” including in Tye’s extensive footnotes, but he also uses telling quotes to shine a light on McCarthy as a person and a politician. A Newsweek reporter of that era, Samuel Schaffer, might have put it best when he said assessing McCarthy’s slippery charges and his own past was like “trying to pin down a blob of mercury.”

Though McCarthy had perhaps half the American population on his side before his fall — and he still has supporters today, Tye notes — he had plenty of detractors, too. One was Ernest Hemingway, who wrote him letter saying “You are a sh-t” and “[I] would knock you on your ass.”

McCarthy was censured by the Senate, including 22 Republicans, in late 1954, and his career rapidly went downhill; the media and many of his previous supporters, like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, deserted him. His drinking, already an issue during his days riding herd in his investigations, accelerated, exacerbating other health problems, and he was dead less than 2½ years later.

Tye brings a genuine element of pathos to that part of the story, and he says reading McCarthy’s “compelling love letters” to his wife showed him a side of the senator he hadn’t suspected. “They clearly suggest this was a guy who had feelings, who cared about his wife, his friends.”

That said, writing about McCarthy during Trump’s presidency, notes Tye, was a reminder of the dangers posed by any demagogue with a powerful platform. “There were so many days when I had trouble distinguishing between what I was reading in 70-year-old congressional testimonies and today’s headlines,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. Larry Tye’s website is larrytye.com.