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The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy

The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy

4.6 3
by William F. Buckley Jr.

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From the celebrated conservative comes a rich and complex novel about one of the most conspicuous political figures in American history--Senator Joe McCarthy.


From the celebrated conservative comes a rich and complex novel about one of the most conspicuous political figures in American history--Senator Joe McCarthy.

Editorial Reviews

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
This book is genuine page-turner. And it gives a vivid portrait of Joseph McCarthy...[A] highly enjoyable novel-with-attitude.
Wall Street Journal
Charles McCarry
...[A]n honorable and, for the persevering, an absorbing book....[A]n evocative portrait of the Joseph R. McCarthy we already know: a plaything of blind fate and blind ambition who was born poor and stayed poor in his own mind no matter how famous and powerful he became....[I]t ought to be a cry from the heart. The Redhunter, for all its considerable merits, is far too polite. —The New York Times Book Review
Terry Teachout
Though The Redhunter is not short, I polished it off in a day...mainly because it is so wonderfully readable....a witty, fast-moving yarn....[T]he feel of The Redhunter is substantially memoiristic...
National Review
George Stade
Mr. Buckley is at his best in serving up the...brouhaha, hearings and behind-the-scenes maneuverings, the meat of the novel, the rest mere condiment and garnish by comparison....Mr. Buckley deserves praise for giving equal time to McCarthy's enemies, if only dismiss them.
New York Times
Robert D. Novak
Only a wordsmith of William F. Buckley's caliber could tryand largely succeedin depicting Joe McCarthy as an engagingsympatheticand ultimately tragic figure....[T]he Left...turned the senator into an ogre of Hitlerian dimensions....The Redhunter does succeed a little in shredding that liberal contrivance. —The Weekly Standard
McCarthy. It's a name that can chill your spine, conjuring up images of overweening arrogance, willful ignorance and lowest-common-denominator pandering, all perpetuated in the name of giving the American people what they think they want. It's a name which will always taste slightly bitter when rolled across one's tongue, reminding us of the appalling way in which the modern cult of personality can—with the help of TV cameras—turn an otherwise unremarkable individual into an overnight sensation.

I refer, of course, to Jenny McCarthy, the spectacularly untalented and momentarily ubiquitous star of magazines and cable and network television. Jenny's enhanced bosom and perpetually-mugging countenance somehow enabled her to become queen for a day of the American zeitgeist, circa 1996, but she wasn't the only McCarthy to go from zero to hero and back again in the span of a few short years. It's another, Senator Joseph R.—self-appointed scourge of the "Red Menace,' and the very personification of the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s—whose abrupt rise and fall forms the basis for the new historical novel by William F. Buckley Jr.

Sent to the U.S. Senate in 1948 by his home state of Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy quickly found that, though his oratorical skills were mediocre at best, he could stir up plenty of interest by pushing the hot-button topic of the era—namely, the rapid spread of Communism at home and abroad. McCarthy, whose favorite tactic was to announce that he had "a photostatic copy' of a list of Commie sympathizers in one government department or another, fell in love with the attention his blusteringpronouncements brought, and much of the country fell in love with him, at least for a while. McCarthy's "tell-it-like-it-is' style endeared him to the commonfolk as well as the media, both of whom viewed the Senator as not only a righteous defender of the American Way of Life, but also as a refreshing contrast to the effete, passionless ways of his congressional colleagues.

The love affair was not to last. Caught up in the momentum of his own crusade, McCarthy began to take on ever-larger targets, even training the scope of his Red-hunting gun on the White House and the U.S. Army. In 1954, the nationally-televised Army-McCarthy Hearings did much to discredit McCarthy, especially when it was revealed that Roy Cohn, McCarthy's chief counsel, had repeatedly tried to shake down the Army for special treatment on behalf of one David Schine, Cohn's close companion and "unpaid researcher.' Almost overnight, the Senator's popularity ratings went down the tube; officially censured by his colleagues before the year's end, McCarthy would spend his remaining days on earth drinking himself into oblivion.

Considering the fact that, back in the day, Buckley was an ardent supporter of McCarthy and his cause, The Red Hunter is hardly the sympathetic portrait one might suspect. Buckley's conservative bent is indeed evident, especially in his criticism of President Truman's handling of post-war negotiations with Josef Stalin, but never once does he present the late Senator as a hero or martyr. Through the eyes of Harry Bontecou, a former McCarthy speechwriter, we see an average human being with an above-average capacity for hard work, a staggering propensity for lofty rhetoric and the extraordinary ability to polarize a community; throughout his entire political career, Joe McCarthy was always a love-him-or-hate-him proposition.

Though the novel's tightly wound subplot offers a rather paltry payoff (in a nutshell: Bontecou discusses McCarthy with a former British diplomat/Soviet spy, who is eventually re vealed to be someone more than he appears), Buckley is smart to let the Bontecou character be our guide. For one thing, this enables us to see McCarthy from the perspective of the people who worked for him and adored him; thus, we can effectively share in their horror as, egged on by Cohn—whom Buckley depicts as nothing less than a malevolent homunculus seated on the Senator's shoulder—McCarthy begins to transform himself from American patriot into a town bully. For another, it allows Buckley to avoid mentioning the many individuals whose lives were needlessly ruined by McCarthy's crusade; after all, as a member of McCarthy's inner circle, Bont ecou would have been very careful not to socialize with anyone who exhibited anything even remotely resembling Communist sympathies.

Though short on cultural detail—Mrs. McCarthy's towering hairdo is possibly the only non-political period reference in the entire novel—The Red Hunter does an excellent job of reconstructing the political milieu of the Korean War era. The novel also serves as a stern warning to those who would let their own victories (political or otherwise) go to their heads. As Joe McCarthy himself might have said to Newt Gingrich, Kenneth Starr or Jenny McCarthy, sometimes you gotta know when to quit. —Dan Epstein
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Buckley, ever the sage political pundit, chooses the foil of fiction to present his gently revisionist view of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The author reads his own heartfelt introduction, in which he reminisces that he "knew the senator" and calls him an "extraordinary man." He reminds listeners that McCarthy's crusade against alleged Communists in the U.S. government took place during "the darkest days of the Cold War." The novel itself is read with pleasant, smoky-voiced assurance by veteran audio narrator Cariou. A seasoned actor, he comes across wise, considered and compassionate. Thanks to Buckley's skills within the commercial fiction genre, the tale motors along with great velocity. McCarthy rises from his early chicken-farming days to seize ruthless power on the Senate floor. A parallel plot follows the career of World War II hero Harry Bontecou, whose life provides adventurous counterpart to McCarthy's. Buckley's wiles at turning an ugly historical episode into an adventure novel are considerable, and the result plays out as compelling audio. Also available unabridged. Based on the 1999 Little, Brown hardcover. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Not, perhaps, the most romantic protagonist. Buckley's take on the senator should be obvious.
Joseph Shattan
Of course, The Redhunter is an artful blend of fact and fiction...it does convey a picture of McCarthy and his supporters that is both sympathetic and plausible.
The American Spectator
Sam Tanenhaus
[A]n arresting hybrid of fact and invention...like his protagonist, Buckley is not a detail man, and errors litter the narrative. But this does not detract from his achievement, which is to enteratin even as he proposes a daring premise: That McCarthy was human after all.
First Things
[A] fascinating tale fascinatingly told, and is warmly recommended to those who want to make sense of a tumultuous time that continues to reverberate through our political culture.
Kirkus Reviews
A fictional portrait of Joe McCarthy—sympathetic but not sanitized—in which clay feet replace cloven hooves. Here's 20-year-old McCarthy needing to pass a written exam in order to get back into high school. But he's not good at written exams. To him, it seems more efficient simply to draft a friend to take the test for him. Some years later, running for his first elective office and facing a popular incumbent, he informs the tax-jittery electorate that his rival has earned between $175,000 and $200,000. He neglects to add that it took 20 years for this sum to accrue. Sharp dealing, half-truths, and innuendoes abound, and McCarthy detractors will point to these as the mark of the man. But Buckley wants his readers to see McCarthy through the eyes of Harry Bontecou, the novel's second-string hero. Harry, young, brilliant, politically conservative, and fervently anti-Soviet, views McCarthy as standing in the nation's first line of defense against an enemy far too lightly regarded. It's the man's constancy, courage, and foresight that draw Harry to him. To Harry (as to McCarthy), it's clear that only fools or villains can doubt that "loyalty risks" operate in the State Department, shaping (and corrupting) American foreign policy. Harry signs on with the redhunting senator, and through him we witness most of the events constituting his meteoric rise and calamitous fall in just a four-year period starting in 1950. We watch the offstage McCarthy as well—the easygoing charmer, the blindly loyal friend, the smitten lover, the hapless drunk. And then, at the climactic Army-McCarthy hearings, we see him come apart, the victim of his own excesses. But, according to his friend Harry,he's never small-minded or mean-spirited. Brisk, engrossing, vintage Buckley (Brothers No More, 1995, etc.). Given that it's a tale unabashedly partisan, it is—for the most part—surprisingly credible.

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Little, Brown and Company
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Chapter One


Enter Lord Herrendon

Harry Bontecou was tired, but also relaxed. He sat in one of the pleasant, comfortably tatterdemalion clubs patronized by English literati. He had been warned his host might be late for dinner so he had brought along the morning papers. The headline in the Telegraph spoke of the rumored capture the day before of Pol Pot in the Cambodian forests. There were two accounts, one in a news article, the second in the editorial section, telling the minihistory of Pol Pot, sometime plenipotentiary ruler of Cambodia.

They differed on the enumeration of Cambodians executed by Pol Pot during the years 1975 to 1979, when he ruled. The news account spoke of "over a million executed," the editorial of "two million." Harry sipped his sherry. He paused then and reflected on ex-actly what he was doing, reading about Pol Pot twenty-five years after the age of the killing fields, drinking sherry.

He supposed that there would not ensue, in the press accounts the next day, lively and informed discussions over which of the two figures was more nearly correct one million killed by the self-designated Marxist-Leninist, or two. The population of Cambodia at the time of Pol Pot's rule was five million, the Telegraph reminded its readers. So, Harry Bontecou closed his eyes and quickly calculated. The variable estimates meant 20 percent of the population executed, or 40 percent of the population executed. The Telegraph's account told that Pol Pot's genocide was the "gravest since those of the Second World War." Harry reflected. The executions in Nazi Germany might have reached 10 percent of the population; perhaps an equivalent percentage in the Soviet Union (twenty-five million shot or starved between 1917 and the death of Stalin in 1953 was a figure frequently encountered). Harry remembered his reaction on that winter day in 1946 when it became his job to expedite a genocidal operation. A mini genocidal operation. Now he could read the papers and sip sherry and speak softly and securely in this well-protected shelter for British men of letters. It was very different for him then, and very dif-ferent those early years. Now he could focus on the statistics, on the round figures. Now he was Harry Bontecou, Ph.D. History.

The Telegraph noted also the transatlantic debate over whether Marcus Wolf was entitled to a visa to visit the United States. Herr Wolf, the paper reported, was indignant at having been held off. He had served as chief of intelligence for the Democratic Republic of Germany, which no longer existed. But when it did, East Germany's mission had been to do the will of Moscow. This included guarding the impermeability of the Berlin Wall. That was a special responsi-bility of Marcus Wolf, Harry knew he scanned the story, would the reporter mention the wall? No. He went back to the paragraph reporting Wolf's displeasure. Harry knew, as did how many members of the Garrick Club? 70 percent? 10 percent? that as Secret Police (Stasi) chief, Wolf had engaged in the torture and killing of anyone who, between 1961 and 1989, when the wall came down, tried to escape from the Democratic Republic of Germany to West Germany. Marcus Wolf had taken considerable precautions to dis-courage trespassers to freedom. They included land mines and elec-trical fences and barbed wire and spotlights and machine guns and killer dogs. Now, in the morning paper, Wolf was reported as saying he did not understand being persecuted for carrying out a routine professional assignment. "I didn't kill anybody personally," he told the reporter.

Neither did Hitler, Harry reflected.

He was jolted by the hortatory tone of voice from a figure standing by the bar, who now, drink in hand, approached him, an elderly man stylishly dressed in dark gray. His abundant white hair framed an angular face with heavy tortoise-shell glasses that magnified the light blue eyes. Oh, my God, Harry Bontecou thought, Tracy. His freshman-year college roommate.

"Say." The insistent tone was off register in the quiet of the Garrick Club. One had the impression the leather volumes winced at Tracy's voice. "Didn't you used to be Harry Bontecou?"

Harry was irritated by the question. To begin with, the tired formulation, "Didn't you used to be..." Harry remembered that phrase used in the title of a book published in the 1960s, an autobiography of George Murphy. The author had been a genial Hollywood song-and- dance entertainer in the memory of an entire generation of moviegoers, and suddenly he was junior senator from the state of California. Clever title back then. In the 1960s; not funny in 1991. There was that, there was the imperious tone of voice, and there were the memories, many of them ugly, of the man who now addressed him. Harry remained in his chair but extended his hand. "Hello, Tracy. How you doing?"

"I'm fine, old boy. And you? I'll buy you a drink. What will you have?"

"Nothing, thanks. You living in England, Tracy?"

"Yes, old boy. But you—you still hunting political progressives for a living?"

Oh, please, Harry thought. Four decades had gone by. He would not take the bait. He had had more than enough, back then. Back in the years of the Korean war, of the rise of Mao Tse-tung, of the Soviet explosion of an atom bomb, of the Berlin blockade, the campaign of Henry Wallace for president. Above all...the years of Joe McCarthy. His mind turned determinedly to the likeliest way of avoiding the old subject.

"Yes, indeed, Tracy," he said submissively. And then quickly, "Trust everything is okay with you. Come to think of it, the last time I got any word about you was from the Washington, D.C., police."


"Yes. After your surprise...visit to me...after they escorted you home, they reported the next day that you were in law school and evidently had excess energies to spare." Harry did not tell him about the other call, from the security people. "But all goes well for you, I gather."

"Well, I manage to make ends meet." Tracy Allshott extended his hand toward a waiter, who knew to bring him another drink. "You would discover this, dear Harry, if ever while in London or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world you needed a lawyer, and someone was benevolent enough, notwithstanding your Redhunting past, to give you the name of the...best in America or in London you would learn that I am indeed...paying my bills! Though if you came to me as a client, perhaps I would give you a compassionate discount, as a member of the Columbia class of 1950."

Talks rather more than he used to, Harry reflected. On the other hand, Allshott had clearly been drinking.

"That would be nice, Tracy." He permitted his eyes to wander over to the entrance of the lounge. Tracy did not miss the meaning intended.

"But you are waiting for somebody?"

To Harry's dismay, Tracy reached over to an adjoining table, drew a chair alongside, and sat down. "Evidently your host has not arrived yet. So I will take the opportunity. I am writing my memoirs, and I thought to try to dig up an address for you. I want in my memoirs to talk about Senator McCarthy."

"Which Senator McCarthy?" Harry asked, affecting innocence, though knowing it was fruitless. Clearly, with his background, Tracy was not talking about the other McCarthy. Eugene McCarthy, sometime senator from Minnesota, had derailed President Johnson in 1968 and soon after resigned political office to go back to his poetry. Harry might as well have asked, "Which Pope John Paul?"

"Don't waste my time, Harry. My assistant, after a few minutes in the library, confirms my impression: that after Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, your Senator McCarthy was the dominant figure in the United States from 1950 to 1955."

"I will not deny that."

Allshott stared at his drink as though the salons of history were assembled there to hear his charge. His voice was oracular. "Senator McCarthy was, by the consolidated holding of history, the most dangerous American of the half century, a savage, unscrupulous, fascistic demagogue—"

"Tracy. Would you please go away?"

"You don't want to talk about Joe McCarthy." Allshott's voice was insistent, the words rapidly pronounced. Now he paused. "I don't blame you."

He rose from his chair. "We'll leave it that there were those of us back in the fifties during the anti-Communist hysteria who were farsighted and courageous enough to resist McCarthy and McCarthy-ism."

"Congratulations," Harry said, lowering his eyes to the newspaper.

"All right. I'll let you alone. But you're going to have a place in my memoirs, Harry. Harry Bontecou, the young McCarthyite. You've never written about those years. But I'm not surprised. What the hell would you say?"

Harry bit his lip. He said nothing, keeping his eyes on the paper. Tracy Allshott hesitated only a moment, and then turned and walked back to the bar.

Harry's eyes stayed on the newspaper, but they did not focus. It had been a long time since the subject of Joe McCarthy had been raised. But the memories would never entirely dissipate. When McCarthy died, Pol Pot was a young Marxist student in Paris; Khrushchev had succeeded Stalin as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the most exalted office in the Soviet empire; Dwight David Eisenhower was one year into his second term as president. And Harry—

But again he was interrupted. This time by his host.

"We've never met." Lord Herrendon extended his hand.

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Redhunter 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Russell_Kirk More than 1 year ago
One of Mr. Buckley's highly polished products; it flowed from chapter to chapter seamlessly; a hybrid novel that whet the reader's appetite wanting more at the conclusion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
William F Buckley does a magnificent job of showing us the real Joe McCarthy, a flawed Patriot. The jury may still be out on whether McCarthy did more to help or harm the cause against Communism but there is little doubt that his intentions were worthy, if not always his methods.