Joe McCarthy: Then and Now

By Tom Degan

“I have here in my hand a list of two-hundred-and-five – a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nonetheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” Senator Joseph McCarthy, Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950


In a public career that lasted a little over a decade, Senator McCarthy was never able to uncover a single professed Communist working within the United States government.

One of the many things I love about the MSNBC program Countdown with Keith Olbermann is Keith’s habit of citing the fact that a story he is highlighting is on the anniversary of a significant day in American history. He then ties the two events together symbolically. Such was the case on Monday evening. While covering the latest barrage of right wing lies and craziness, he noted that it was the sixtieth anniversary of the speech in Wheeling, West Virginia that launched the red-baiting career of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy.

From what I have read on the subject – on a personal level anyway – old Joe was a thoroughly likable guy. Jack Kennedy, the most amiable of men, thought the world of him. In fact Pat Kennedy, JFK’s sister, even dated the Republican McCarthy for a time – with papa Joe Kennedy’s wholehearted approval. As for me, I think I would have liked Joe McCarthy. I definitely would have loved to have gotten drunk with him at one time or another. The guy could be raucous and freewheeling – a lot of fun by all accounts. But I never would have voted for the man; not if he were the last candidate on earth.

It has all the makings of high comedy: A mediocre legislator with a ’round-the-clock drinking problem decides he needs “an issue” that might propel him into prominence. The nationwide reaction to his false assertions that day in Wheeling placed him in an out of control, high speed roller coaster of fame that was destined to crash. And although there was much comedy to be found in his story (people like McCarthy are always unintentionally funny) in the final analysis there was not much to laugh at. Promising careers were ended. Lives were destroyed.

In the years to come McCarthy became one of the most feared men in Washington. The entire city would be reduced to walking on tiptoes around this disreputable jackass. No one – not even two presidents – would dare confront him head on. The only person in the entire country with the courage to take on Joseph R. McCarthy in a public forum was a legendary broadcast journalist named Edward R. Murrow. His March 1954 CBS program, See It Now, exposed the senator as the liar and fraud that he really was. Murrow’s courage did not come without a cost. Sadly, the McCarthy broadcast marked the beginning of the end of his career at CBS News.

Like all demagogues, Joe McCarthy would eventually be done in by his own excesses. In 1954 when he tried to take on the United States Army, accusing them of being stacked to the rafters with Card Carrying Commies, the very absurdity of the charge proved to be too absurd even for the Congress. In a famous confrontation that was viewed by millions on television, council for the Army, Joseph Welsh, asked the thoroughly humiliated McCarthy:

“At long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?”

By the end of the year, on December 2, he would be censored, stripped of all of his seniority. Two-and-a-half years later, he would be dead; a broken man victimized – as he himself victimized so many others – by his own demons, primarily alcoholism. He was forty-nine years old

In May of 1957 the body of Joseph McCarthy was laid to rest in a small, rural cemetery adjacent to St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Appleton, Wisconsin. The practice of baseless, political accusations that haunted America through much of the 1950s and which bears his name – McCarthyism – was buried with him….or so we believed at the time.

Joe McCarthy lives.

In 2010 his legacy is thriving. The man is everywhere. Sixty years ago there was only one Joseph R. McCarthy. Today there are literally hundreds of them. And his presence is not limited to the floors of the U.S. senate. He is on television; on the radio; and in hundreds of editorial offices throughout the country. The old son-of-a-bitch is literally dominating the opinion media! And to think, Joe McCarthy never had his own TV program.

The fear that so many within GOP feel for Rush Limbaugh reminds me of the psychological hold that old Joe had on Republicans and Democrats alike sixty years ago. Last week Sarah Palin publicly chastised and called for the president to fire Rahm Emanuel for using the term “retard”. She won’t dare call Rush on the carpet for repeatedly using the same word on his program a couple of days later. Like everyone else in her party she is frightened to death of him. Don’t mess with el Rushbo.

This terror was demonstrated last year in a quite comical way, when Congressman Phil Gingrey of Georgia had the gall to denounce Limbaugh in an interview with Politico and, later on, during an appearance on the Chris Matthews Program. Gingrey soon got the word – loud, clear and unmistakable: Criticizing the Great One meant certain exile to political Siberia. Within a matter of hours the thoroughly humiliated lawmaker was on his knees, telling Limbaugh on his radio program:

“I clearly ended up putting my foot in my mouth on some of those comments, and I just wanted to tell you, Rush – and all our Conservative giants, who help us so much maintain our base and grow it to get back this majority – that I regret those stupid comments.”

As Theodore Roosevelt once said in a slightly different context, “The man has all the back bone of a chocolate eclair.”

Why are these people taken seriously? Why are they treated by the establishment with such respect? Why do idiots like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck create such fear and awe in the minds of people who ought to know better? For the same reason a drunken neanderthal like McCarthy was held in such esteem six decades ago: Because he excited “the base”.

Would you like to know what the most beautiful thing about being a progressive blogger is? Unlike the mainstream media, we answer only to our consciences. We are able to mention the unmentionable; that this country is filled with people – scores of millions of them – who are stupid enough to buy into the McCarthyite propaganda that is broadcast into American homes and American cars on an hourly basis. I love Frank Rich. He is probably the greatest columnist on the scene today – but you’ll never hear that manner of brutally honest assessment from him. He wouldn’t dare.

Back in the Fabulous Fifties, Joe McCarthy’s reckless accusations against honest and dedicated government bureaucrats irreparably harmed the State Department. Diplomatic talent that had taken decades to cultivate was scattered like ashes to the wind. As a result of this purge (and that is exactly what it was) so many of the blunders committed a few years later which led to American involvement in Vietnam might very well have been avoided. Tail Gunner Joe’s sick and twisted legacy had done its eternal damage.

That very same kind of damage is being done to this country today. Contrary to what the inscription on his tombstone might have you believe, Joe McCarthy is not dead. The old bastard is still very much with us. Just look around you.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


Goodnight and Good Luck
a film by George Clooney

This tells the story of how Edward R. Murrow and his people at CBS News bravely took on Joe McCarthy on a cold evening in March of 1954.

3 responses to “Joe McCarthy: Then and Now

  1. What may be missing from our picture of “Tailgunner Joe” is the fact that he took a big cue from the McCormack-Dickstein Committee and transferred that committee’s concern over Nazis (which landed Prescott Bush in what should have been boiling hot water) into an obsession with Communists.

    Prescott Bush may have been behind this political maneuver, too, since McCarthy was clearly on a path of certain self-destruction long before he began ruining other people’s lives. The Bushies have never been shy about blackmailing their peers and colleagues into performing obscene acts that benefitted the Bush political agenda.

    Prescott Bush and the Bush Family had their fingerprints all over the support of Hitler and the rescuing of Hitler’s own anti-communist agenda from the ashes.

  2. Actually, McCarthy was proven right about the fact that the US government had been infiltrated by commies.

    In 1995 they released the Venona papers, which vindicated McCarthy. FDR and Truman’s administrations were crawling with soviet spies.

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