As the past is prologue, and history the thing you’re doomed to repeat when you don’t know it, may I recommend “McCarthy,” which opens the 32nd season of the PBS series “American Experience” Monday. That is Sen. Joseph McCarthy, if there were any doubt.
Though documentaries are often begun years before their release, and while no 21st century politician is named here, nor any attempt made to explicitly link the early 1950s with the late 2010s, it would take a willfully obtuse viewer to think that this film has nothing to say to our current political climate, with its renascent — if contextually inside-out — cries of “witch hunt” and, indeed, “McCarthyism,” many of them coming from within the White House. It is about politics in a climate of fear substantially created by politics. It takes up issues too of the confusion of a press faced with a powerful figure who, as one commentator describes him, “was willing to assert things that he knew weren’t true and … did it with aplomb.”
Though “McCarthy” does not rehabilitate a bad reputation, it does give some illuminating human context to its subject and to the changing nature of American socialism in the 20th century, from its salutary support of labor and civil rights movements to its confusion in the face of Soviet imperialism. There were certainly Russian spies in Washington — something most of us would take for granted — though perhaps the panic was not proportional to the threat. As to the senator himself, he is one of those cases we think we know, or know enough about, without necessarily knowing much at all. This isn’t a complete picture — there’s nothing, for example, about McCarthy’s friendship with the Kennedys, or Robert Kennedy’s work for him — but it rounds out a person whose legacy has been reduced to a single word, what the political cartoonist Herblock was the first to call “McCarthyism.”
McCarthy was a Wisconsin farm boy who hunted the skunks that killed their chickens. He was smart, finishing high school in a year. He played poker and coached boxing to help pay his way through college and law school. (It’s easy enough to read those pursuits into later political tactics.) His first elected position was as a judge, with a record for clearing cases that looked like efficiency to some and corner-cutting to others. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Marine Corps as a bridge to a political career — he was a Democrat before the war and a Republican afterward — and, as if for insurance, inflated his war record, claiming combat missions he never undertook and turning a broken leg from a fall off a ladder into a shrapnel wound.
As the story is told here, McCarthy was an undistinguished senator in 1950, with no previously established views on communism, when an Associated Press report on a speech he made in Wheeling, W.Va. — in which he claimed to have knowledge of “205" communists working within the State Department — went what we would now call “viral.” (The senator waved a sheet of paper for effect, but there’s no evidence that it contained any evidence.) McCarthy didn’t start the witch hunt; the House Un-American Activities Committee had been subpoenaing actors and writers for years. But various recent events — North Korea invading South Korea, Russia testing an atomic bomb, the trial of the Rosenbergs, Mao Tse-tung’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China — provided the amniotic soup in which McCarthy’s campaign could flourish. “He found his shtick at last,” says one historian.
For a time, McCarthy was the tail that swung the cat. Fellow Republicans were afraid to cross him, lest his displeasure interfere with their reelection. Newspapers liked him because he sold papers. His rare opponent, Maine Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith — who deserves an “American Experience” documentary all her own — read a “declaration of conscience” on the Senate floor, defending the rights to “criticize,” “hold unpopular beliefs,” “protest” and maintain “independent thought.” McCarthy worked thereafter to undermine her career. At the same time, he is remembered as privately affable, charming and easy to reach. Remembers a reporter, “He just wanted people to like him,” even those whose lives or livelihoods he might be destroying.
Does any of this sound familiar?
McCarthy was a character made to be called Shakespearean, hitching his fortune to a cart he eventually drove into a ditch. It wasn’t just that he never uncovered any spies; when one investigation began to fizzle, he would just move loudly on to another, leaving human wreckage in his wake. (Along with the Red Scare, there was the Lavender Scare, targeting homosexuals working in the government.) It was hubris and the pursuit of power, amplified by his drinking and an inability to read the changing national mood, that did him in.
It was one thing to hector the Truman administration, another to take on the Army with Eisenhower in the White House. Twin nails fixed the lid on the coffin: Edward R. Murrow’s influential “See It Now” broadcast in March 1954 (“The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly”); and the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, from April to June, which put him in the way of the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph Welch (“At long last, have you no sense of decency?”).
In the end McCarthy lost his power, though not his position; censured by the Senate at the end of that year (“I wouldn’t exactly call it a vote of confidence,” he told an interviewer), he was still in office when he died in 1957, at age 48. There were two well-attended funerals in Washington, one state, one church, and a third in Wisconsin. Sympathetic fellow senators played poker on his casket in the plane that carried him home.