When I was in college, I took a History of Wisconsin class that was required. When it came to public office, two names loomed large: the LaFollettes, and Joe McCarthy. I had to write a paper on them an didn’t do too well. I was too young to understand the full impact of the actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. But years have passed, and I’ve read or heard snippets of what McCarthyism was really like. When Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy (AbeBooks) (Amazon) was published, I knew I had to read it to get a full understanding of McCarthy.
From the publisher: “In the long history of American demagogues, from Huey Long to Donald Trump, never has one man caused so much damage in such a short time as Senator Joseph McCarthy. We still use “McCarthyism” to stand for outrageous charges of guilt by association, a weapon of polarizing slander. From 1950 to 1954, McCarthy destroyed many careers and even entire lives, whipping the nation into a frenzy of paranoia, accusation, loyalty oaths, and terror. When the public finally turned on him, he came crashing down, dying of alcoholism in 1957. Only now, through bestselling author Larry Tye’s exclusive look at the senator’s records, can the full story be told.
Demagogue is a masterful portrait of a human being capable of immense evil, yet beguiling charm. McCarthy was a tireless worker and a genuine war hero. His ambitions knew few limits. Neither did his socializing, his drinking, nor his gambling. When he finally made it to the Senate, he flailed around in search of an agenda and angered many with his sharp elbows and lack of integrity. Finally, after three years, he hit upon anti-communism. By recklessly charging treason against everyone from George Marshall to much of the State Department, he became the most influential and controversial man in America. His chaotic, meteoric rise is a gripping and terrifying object lesson for us all. Yet his equally sudden fall from fame offers reason for hope that, given the rope, most American demagogues eventually hang themselves.”
This is the first full-length look at Joseph McCarthy’s life with access to his personal records. That alone makes this book worth the read. However, Tye tries to inject today’s political climate with President Trump as a direct correlation to McCarthyism in the 1950’s. McCarthy wasn’t the start of this type of bullying politician. You could go back to Huey Long or even further back if one looked hard enough. After McCarthy, there was George Wallace and to some extent, Newt Gingrich, who also borrowed from the bullying playbook. I think it’s too early to write Trump’s history, and found it unnecessary to the story of McCarthy himself.
Despite this, Tye tries his best to show the reader a balanced view of McCarthy’s politics and life. That’s hard to do with all of McCarthy’s lies, but he counters it with McCarthy’s charms. For a man so insecure he resorted to alcohol which ultimately led to his early death, he was also “embracing of his friends and vengeful towards foes and more sinister.”
McCarthy’s early life is remarkable. Born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin (about 20 miles from here), McCarthy dropped out of junior high school at when he was fourteen to help his parents with their farm. Eventually, at age 20, McCarthy went back to school and managed to cram three years of high school into one (graduating from Little Wolf High School in Manawa, my husband’s alma mater.) He attended Marquette University and graduated with a law degree, eventually becoming a judge, even though he had no trial experience. He served in World War II, although his claims of what he accomplished during the war have since been refuted.
Fun fact: one of McCarthy’s best friends during his adult life was his campaign manager, an attorney and judge Urban Van Susteren. The name might sound familiar: his daughter, Greta Van Susteren, has been a fixture on Fox News for years.
McCarthy won his Senate seat by attacking longtime senator, Robert LaFollette, Jr. with false accusations and lots of campaign contributions from out-of-state. (It didn’t help that LaFollette didn’t bother to come home to Wisconsin to campaign because he thought his seat was a lock given the long family history in the state.)
McCarthy’s first three years in the Senate were unremarkable until he made a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia where he claimed there were Communists infiltrating the government. For some reason (slow news day), this speech got a lot of attention, and McCarthy liked the attention. He’s found his calling.
The next four years were filled with tons of accusations and Senate subcommittee and televised hearings. McCarthy also began investigations into homosexuals working in federal government posts, who were considered prime candidates for blackmail by the Soviets. Every time he made an accusation, it received wide publicity, increased his likeability, and gained him national fame.
What’s really weird about McCarthy’s appeal is that even though he was a Republican, he had a ton of support from the nation’s 20% Roman Catholic population, who usually voted Democrat. In fact, he was pretty tight with the Kennedy’s, employing Robert for about six months and even dating sister Eunice. When it came time to vote on whether to censure McCarthy in the Senate, Senator John F. Kennedy was conveniently absent and did not vote. Go figure.
The whole downfall of Joe McCarthy began when he went after those in the U.S. Army, who fought back with their own accusations. Then Edward R. Murrow of CBS News decided it was time to take McCarthy down a peg or two. It’s too long and complicated a story to summarize here, but suffice it to say that McCarthy was a victim of his own undoing, was censured by the Senate although he was allowed to keep his seat, and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1957.
While there was Soviet infiltration into the government and other industries, McCarthy himself caught no one with his bombast and witch hunting. What is more shocking is that there are many people who still believe that there was nothing wrong with what he did and the lives he ruined. This is an important book to read, if only to remind us that while many things have changed since the 1950’s, many remain the same.
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