Skip to comments.New Book on Sen. Joe McCarthy
Posted on 03/29/2006 1:53:10 PM PST by factfinder200
BOOK REVIEW McCarthy's very American career Shooting Star The Brief Arc of Joseph McCarthy Tom Wicker Harcourt: 224 pp., $22 By Tim Rutten Times Staff Writer
March 29, 2006
(Excerpt) Read more at calendarlive.com ...
He is one of those rare politicians whose name has been preserved in the linguistic amber of the eponymy. We speak today of "McCarthyism." It is a kind of political pornography difficult to define precisely but, like its sexual counterpart, you know it when you see it.
In "Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy," former New York Times columnist and Washington bureau chief Tom Wicker has written a briskly concise and usefully provocative biography of the onetime junior senator from Wisconsin. Provocative in this case does not denote originality but rather the well-told story's natural tendency to spur further reflection.
Wicker's account of McCarthy's sweatily propulsive rise, disgrace and eclipse is nicely timed. As was widely reported last year, younger members of the audiences who previewed George Clooney's Academy Award-nominated film "Good Night, and Good Luck" told their interviewers that the actor playing McCarthy was "over the top." No actor played the Wisconsin senator; the filmmakers used historical footage of his actual televised appearances.
Wicker's book makes a nice introduction and also an efficient refresher for those generally familiar with McCarthy's fevered life and brutal career.
There are moments when the former columnist's moralizing creeps distractingly perhaps even a little patronizingly into the narrative. "Deception, distortion, exaggeration all are forms of lying; and in any form, lying is to be deplored and condemned, especially when done by public persons in public forms."
This, plus the account's bracing pace, sometimes produces moments when a pause for additional reporting or reflection might have been helpful. For example, Wicker offers the circumstantial suggestion that McCarthy abused his position as an intelligence officer with a Marine Corps dive-bombing squadron to obtain a citation for bravery. It really isn't good enough to suggest that such a thing was possible and wholly in character for the man. To raise the possibility on that basis and without any actual evidence is well, McCarthyite. Similarly, pivotal moments, such as McCarthy's switch from the Democratic to Republican Party, simply are recorded as further examples of a heedless opportunism. That well may be the case, but we all pursue some opportunities and ignore others. In this, as in other instances, it's hard to shake the feeling that there's a buried "why" that might have been fruitfully parsed.
Even so, "Shooting Star" succeeds on any number of valuable fronts. One is reminded of why Wicker was a standout in a brilliant generation of reporters drawn to national affairs in the way he shrewdly allows telling biographical detail to form revelatory patterns. He makes much, for instance, of the young, chronically cash-short McCarthy's fondness for gambling and of the fact that he actually was a rather poor card player who nonetheless succeeded because he was willing to bluff. Like most driven but unskilled gamblers, McCarthy trusted in his own luck and in his instinct for opportunity.
Wicker makes a chillingly convincing case, for example, that the famous 1950 Wheeling, W.Va., speech in which McCarthy launched his reign of terror happened almost by accident. The Wisconsin lawmaker was in bad repute with his senior senatorial colleagues because he had caused a shambles by inexplicably championing the cause of Nazi prisoners of war convicted of massacring American captives at Malmedy. They dispatched him on a Lincoln Day speaking tour of various backwaters. On his way to Wheeling, McCarthy asked the reporters accompanying him whether he should deliver a speech on housing then his signature issue or communist infiltration.
The press corps opted for communism, McCarthy delivered an address cribbed in part from the GOP's young congressional star, California Rep. Richard Nixon, and the rest is wretchedly unhappy history.
In 1950, McCarthy came to Los Angeles campaigning for Nixon's senatorial bid and called on voters to recognize that "the chips are down between the American people and the commiecrat party of betrayal."
For us, it's a sentiment with both a historical and contemporary resonance.
Wicker is particularly good at showing the indispensable role that a friendly and self-interested press commie spies were good copy played in furthering McCarthy's ambitions.
Similarly, he points out that Democrats, alarmed about communist penetration of the labor movement and terrified at the prospect of being baited from the right as "soft on security," pushed the nation in abominable directions. It was Harry S. Truman, for example, who instituted the program of loyalty oaths, and Cold War liberals Hubert H. Humphrey and Lyndon B. Johnson amended the Communist Control Act of 1954 to declare the Communist Party USA an "agency of a foreign power" and, as Wicker points out, "therefore not entitled to the rights, privileges and immunities of other parties."
We now know thanks to the opening of Soviet archives that the CPUSA was, in fact, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Soviet Union, but that the denial of its members' civil rights was not only illiberal but also counterproductive. It was the corrosive essence of McCarthyism that obliterates the possibility of making and acting upon these sorts of necessary distinctions.
That's as true now as it was in 1954.
The question remains, though, why were so many Americans whatever their background or station such an easy mark for McCarthy, the man on the make? Why were so many inclined to fold when he bluffed?
After all, France and Italy had larger and far more threatening communist parties ones every bit as subservient to Moscow and never experienced anything like McCarthy. As others, most recently Tony Judt, have pointed out, British spies Klaus Fuchs, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and, most particularly, Kim Philby did far more damage to the West than any of their American counterparts.
Yet Britain never descended into anything like McCarthyism. In fact, it does not require a British sense of irony to understand just how ludicrous a Parliamentary Committee on Unbritish Activities ever would have seemed.
So, again, why us?
In 1963, historian Richard Hofstadter delivered the annual Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford and attempted to situate McCarthy in a particularly American historical sequence. A year later, Harpers adapted that talk into the now famous essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."
Hofstadter correctly rejected the notion that McCarthy was uniquely aberrant:
"The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant . The paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content."
Hofstadter memorably concluded, "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."
It was a compassionate conclusion one Wicker echoes in his own. We're less likely to share it today, as we've all learned a great deal more about the paranoids' continuing capacity to make all of us suffer for their delusions.
It was not paranoid of Senator McCarthy to expose and pursue what we now know were real Communist spies. Even the RUSSIANS now admit that all of the people Joe fingered were their agents and still the illiberal MSM trashes this man.
I agree that it was not paranoid for Joe to pursue the subject, but as even J. Edgar Hoover ultimately decided, Joe was inept and prone to make exaggerated accusations which brought legitimate anti-communist efforts into disrepute.
As former FBI informant Herbert Philbrick said in 1952:
"According to the Communist leaders, McCarthy has helped them a great deal. McCarthy's kind of attacks add greatly to the confusion, putting up a smokescreen for the party and making it more difficult than ever for people to discern who is a communist and who is not."
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