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The Story of the Rise and Fall of a Senator – 'American Experience: McCarthy'
January 6, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

It was six decades ago, but in some ways, it seems like now.

There was name-calling, finger-pointing, fact-checking, a televised congressional hearing. There was talk of State Department evil. This was the Sen. Joseph McCarthy era; an excellent PBS documentary (American Experience: McCarthy, January 6 at 9 p.m. ET, check local listings) takes a fresh look and dispels some assumptions.

The wrong notion, historian David Oshinsky told the Television Critics Association (TCA) in July, is that McCarthy was a "slightly moronic, animalistic person. (Instead,) this was one very shrewd politician."

That comes across in the film. McCarthy is described as affable, talkative, easy to like. "In some ways, he was quite a charming guy," says Leon Kamin, one of the people McCarthy attacked.

What some people mock, others consider relatable.

McCarthy fostered the image, historian Beverly Gage says in the film, of "a rough-and-tumble farm boy from the Midwest."

That image was basically true. McCarthy grew up on a farm near Appleton, Wis.; he helped finance his education (Marquette University and law school) as a boxing coach and poker player.

His law practice wobbled, but he campaigned perpetually and defeated a veteran judge. Then he became a World War II Marine officer, debriefing pilots and firing lots of bullets as a tail-gunner. "The problem," historian Ellen Schrecker says in the film, "was that none of them were fired in combat."

But the image of "tail-gunner Joe" would grow. He even claimed to be wounded in combat, Schrecker says; his one injury, she says, was when "he fell off a ladder."

This became a growing trend, historian Jelani Cobb told the TCA, as McCarthy kept stretching the truth. Reporters "could fact-check (one at a time), and he would lie exponentially. And so he's always churning out more and more information."

He ousted an incumbent senator in Wisconsin's 1946 Republican primary by constantly campaigning (again) and by calling himself the war veteran's candidate. In Washington, he was mostly ignored – until he gave a 1950 speech, saying there were 205 Communists in the government.

No one knew where he got the number from; eventually, McCarthy mentioned eight people.

"Every one of the cases that he is talking about is from World War II or before," Oshinsky told the TCA.

An effective lie needs a morsel of truth. (There were some Soviet informants in the government, Oshinsky said.) And it needs to be said in an accessible way. McCarthy was "saying outlandish things, saying outrageous things," Cobb said, but he was "kind of speaking in tabloid headlines."

He was quoted often, and the public noticed. After his re-election in 1952, he became chairman of the Government Affairs Committee; in 1953 alone, he held 143 days of hearings, interrogating 600 people and sometimes destroying careers and reputations.

Some targets were obscure – an Army dentist, a Harvard student – and some were odd.

McCarthy raged that the government's Overseas Libraries had books by Communists. He wanted the books – Dashiell Hammett's crime novels, Langston Hughes' poetry – eliminated; he brought in the authors to testify.

That was when President Dwight Eisenhower objected. "Don't join the book burners," he told a Dartmouth graduating class. "Don't be afraid to go to the library and read every book."

But mostly, Eisenhower ignored McCarthy until the senator's lawyer (Roy Cohn) began threatening the Army to get more leave time for a friend and colleague who had been drafted.

McCarthy refused to oust or rebuke Cohn. He "did not retreat and did not apologize…. That was not his style," Donald Ritchie, a former Senate historian, says in the film.

That set up the televised Army-McCarthy hearings and then a Senate censure probe. All of the Democrats and half the Republicans voted to censure.

McCarthy grumbled about a "show trial" and a "sham"; he continued speaking to crowds of passionate supporters. But his influence dwindled, and his drinking increased.

When he died in 1957, the cause was listed as hepatitis, but biographers feel it was spurred by alcoholism. He was 48.

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