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Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy

Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy

by Tom Wicker

Joe McCarthy first became visible to the nation on February 9, 1950, when he delivered a Lincoln Day address to local Republicans in Wheeling, West Virginia. That night he declared, "I have here in my hand a list of 205 [members of the Communist Party] still working and shaping policy in the State Department." Anticommunism was already a cause embraced by the


Joe McCarthy first became visible to the nation on February 9, 1950, when he delivered a Lincoln Day address to local Republicans in Wheeling, West Virginia. That night he declared, "I have here in my hand a list of 205 [members of the Communist Party] still working and shaping policy in the State Department." Anticommunism was already a cause embraced by the Republican Party as a whole; McCarthy tapped into this current and turned it into a flood. Little more than five years later, after countless hearings and stormy speeches and after incalculable damage to ordinary Americans and the nation itself, McCarthy's Senate colleagues voted sixty-seven to twenty-two to censure him for his reckless accusations and fabrications. We know today that not one prosecution resulted from McCarthy's investigations into communists in the U.S. government.

Journalist Tom Wicker examines McCarthy's ambition and record, attempting to discover the motivation for his demagoguery.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Part history, part biography, part inquest on dead hopes, the book is a first-rate creative study of personalities and events and of how they have affected each other."-THE NEW YORKER

"One of the fairest as well as liveliest [books on these two presidencies] . . . The moral of JFK and LBJ is that the more the presidential candidate inflates what the people expect of his presidency the more vulnerable he becomes to the iron laws that bind him in office."

Publishers Weekly
America's most notorious demagogue emerges as less a fanatic than an opportunist in this lively political biography. Longtime New York Times political writer Wicker, author of well-received studies of Eisenhower and other presidents, notes that the 1950 speech that catapulted McCarthy to fame, in which he claimed to have a list of 205 Communists in the State Department, was a last-minute substitute for a talk on housing policy. When the speech drew unexpected media attention, the obscure Wisconsin senator deployed his lifelong talent for self-promotion and political theater to keep himself in the headlines. Wicker considers McCarthy, who uncovered not a single Communist, "a latecomer to, and virtually a nonparticipant in the real anticommunist wars" that continued after his downfall. Wicker situates McCarthyism within the prevailing climate of Cold War tensions, anticommunist paranoia and conservative animus against organized labor and New Deal liberalism. Against this backdrop McCarthy appears a human figure, undone by his own bullying manner, alcoholism and hubris in antagonizing powerful foes in the Senate and Eisenhower administration. Although Wicker's take on McCarthy isn't groundbreaking, he combines insightful political history with a deft character study to craft a wonderful introduction to this crucial American figure. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Noted journalist and biographer Wicker (Dwight D. Eisenhower: 1953-1961) here offers a short life of the Wisconsin senator whose "brief arc" took place between 1950 and 1954, when his spectacular Communist-hunting ascendancy, fixing the word "McCarthyism" in our language, ended with a televised downfall in U.S. Senate hearings that gripped the nation. Based for the most part on a few standard secondary sources, particularly Thomas C. Reeves's The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy, this is a good introduction to a man who, in Wicker's words, "clearly loved the excitement, the aura of political power the headlines that resulted from his every statement, his wildest charges, his most daring battles." McCarthy's hunt for communists did not result in a single prosecution. After 1954 elections that brought a Democratic majority in Congress and censure by the Senate, McCarthy went into rapid political and physical decline and died three years later. Written with brevity and clarity, Wicker's study is less substantial than works by Reeves and others; an optional purchase for public libraries and undergraduate collections. [The current movie Good Night and Good Luck, directed and cowritten by George Clooney, may increase general reader interest in McCarthy and this book.-Ed.]-Robert F. Nardini, Chichester, NH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The rise and fall of the Wisconsin chicken farmer who, as a junior senator seeking power and prestige, briefly gained both as the nation's anti-communist Grand Inquisitor in the 1950s. No apologist for whom he considers perhaps America's most effective demagogue of the latter half of the 20th century, the longtime New York Times national political writer is still able to illuminate-as perhaps McCarthy's bitterest opponents never could-the human being behind the anti-Red rampage that brought innuendo and smear tactics to new lows in Washington. The author's examination brings no radical or, for that matter, original conclusions on the ultimate impact of McCarthy's campaign to rid government and its agencies of those tinged by the most casual association with anything related to Communist ideology. However, Wicker's experience and analytical dexterity uncover and reassemble a host of factoids that help us understand how the phenomenon took its grip and gathered momentum so rapidly. McCarthy's innate intelligence (an educational dropout, he went back at age 21 to complete four years of high school in nine months) and energy are seen as key. He senses that enhancing his U.S. Marines war record will win him elections and is willing to bet that the press won't bother to check it; and, building on that experience, also bets the same press will run with sensational stories before fully checking the facts of accusations that his key targets are besmirched with Communist leanings, present or past. Wicker's behind-the-scenes insights are pungent: For example, after Edward R. Murrow's damning national broadcast (depicted in the recent film Good Night, and Good Luck), Senator Lyndon Johnson insiststhat committee hearings, which he expected would effectively expose and eviscerate "McCarthyism," be televised to the nation in their entirety. And later, at the McCarthy graveside, a lone mourner from the other camp: Robert F. Kennedy. A crisp portrait that adds to a broader understanding of the use of fear as an enduring political stratagem.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

No wonder I moved on so promptly in 1957. Joe McCarthy may have been the most destructive demagogue in American history. As a small-town reporter obsessed with national affairs, I was certain during the years of McCarthy’s political dominance that he was uniquely villainous, his sins against democracy not to be forgiven or forgotten.
           However interminable those years seemed to me, they were in fact relatively few. Joe McCarthy first became visible to the nation on February 9, 1950, when he delivered a Lincoln Day address to local Republicans in Wheeling, West Virginia. That night, according to various and differing accounts, he declared something like “I have here in my hand a list of 205” members of the Communist Party, “still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”
           Just less than five years after that speech, following December 2, 1954, McCarthy virtually disappeared. That day the United States Senate—his power base, his political bunker—voted by sixty-seven to twenty-two to “condemn” him for conduct bringing that body into disrepute. Every Democratic senator except John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was in the hospital, voted for what most senators believed to be a resolution of “censure.”* Twenty-two Republicans—members of the party that had done the most to advance and sustain McCarthy—joined the Democrats, some with relief at the end of a political reign they had considered an ordeal.
           Even this climactic moment of defeat brought out McCarthy’s peculiar jauntiness:
           “It wasn’t,” he told the reporters who had done so much to spread his fame and power, “exactly a vote of confidence.”
           He then added with characteristic bravado and exaggeration:
           “I’m happy to have this circus over, so I can get back to the real work of digging out communism, corruption, and crime.”
           He never did. Strictly speaking, he never had.
McCarthy’s Wheeling speech in February 1950 is one of the most consequential in ntry-region w:st="on"U.S. history without a recorded or an agreed-upon text, nor was it connected to a noteworthy cause such as an inaugural or a commemoration; instead, it resulted from ordinary political bureaucracy. The Republican Party’s speaker’s bureau had routinely assigned McCarthy, then a little-known one-term senator regarded unfavorably by many of his colleagues, to a five-speech Lincoln Day tour that began in Wheeling and ended in Huron, South Dakota—hardly major political forums. Party elders had no idea what he would say, other than the usual political balderdash; neither, probably, did McCarthy, who arrived in Wheeling with two rough drafts—one concerning housing, then his Senate “specialty,” the other on communists in government.
           The origins of the second speech are undetermined but not totally obscure. As early as his winning Senate campaign against Democrat Howard McMurray in 1946,* McCarthy had used “Red scare” rhetoric, enough so that McMurray complained in one of the campaign debates that his loyalty had never before been challenged by a “responsible citizen . . . [T]his statement is a little below the belt.” That did not deter McCarthy from repeating the accusation and others like it.1
           In later years McCarthy gave different reasons for his ultimate turn, after four relatively undistinguished years in the Senate, to all-out Red hunting. On various occasions McCarthy cited a warning from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal about the dangers of communist infiltration; an investigation of fur imports that uncovered the Soviet Union’s use of its fur trade to advance its espionage; an invitation from an unspecified FBI team to take on the communist problem; the defeat of Leland Olds for reappointment as chairman of the Federal Power Commission after hearings in which senators led by Lyndon B. Johnson decided that Olds was maybe a Red or anyway at least too radical; and the exposure of Alger Hiss and his conviction for perjury on January 21, 1950, just before the Wheeling speech.
           None of these events is convincing as a real turning point. Forrestal, for example, was dead when McCarthy’s claim appeared, so that it could not be checked with him, and the fur-import yarn is implausible on its face. More believable is a story first published by the late columnist Drew Pearson about a dinner in January 1950 at Washington’s once-popular, now-defunct Colony Restaurant. That night, Pearson reported, McCarthy entertained Father Edmund Walsh, dean of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service; William A. Roberts, a Washington attorney who represented Pearson; and Charles Kraus, a fervently anticommunist speechwriter for McCarthy. The senator sought advice, Pearson wrote, on building a record for his reelection campaign in 1952; Father Walsh suggested “communism as an issue,” and McCarthy supposedly leaped at the idea.
           This tale has been widely accepted, but it, too, should be taken with a dash of skepticism. In the first place, “communism as an issue” had been a Republican staple for years. (The Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1944, Senator John W. Bricker of Ohio, had tried even that early on to make the point: “First the New Deal took over the Democratic party and destroyed its very foundation; now these communist forces have taken over the New Deal and will destroy the very foundations of the Republic.”) Red-baiting was a Republican tactic in which a leader as respected as Robert A. Taft of Ohio sometimes indulged. In the second place, a senator who had used alleged communism against Howard McMurray in 1946 and who was well aware of communism as a national political issue could hardly have been knocked off his horse, like Saul on the road to Damascus, by a suggestion that he retake a well-trodden path.
           Even before the Colony dinner, McCarthy had blasted Secretary of State Dean Acheson for refusing “to turn his back” on Alger Hiss. In November 1949, moreover, McCarthy had furiously attacked one of his most bitter home-state enemies, the Madison Capital Times, in an eleven-page mimeographed statement claiming that the newspaper followed the communist line, aping the Daily Worker in its news treatment; that its city editor was known to its publisher as a communist; and that the Capital Times’ anti-McCarthy investigations were communist inspired. McCarthy raised the question whether the Capital Times might be “the Red mouthpiece for the Communist party in Wisconsin?” He also called for an economic boycott of the paper (an action that never materialized). The statement was franked and mailed throughout Wisconsin.
           The author of such an attack needed no suggestion from Father Walsh (who later repudiated McCarthy’s extreme brand of anticommunism) to realize that “communism as an issue” was headline stuff. The assault on the Capital Times* had already brought McCarthy more publicity in Wisconsin than any of his activities in the Senate.
           McCarthy’s Wheeling speech, far from being a sudden inspiration, reflected the senator’s late debut in what by 1950 had become a full-dress Republican campaign against the communists, “fellow travelers, Reds, and pinks” that party spokesmen insisted (with good reason) had infiltrated (to an extent they exaggerated) the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. As far as has been verified over the years, McCarthy had nothing new or original to add to the campaign—save, crucially, the drama, hyperbole, and audacity of which he quickly showed himself a master.
           In the rough draft McCarthy handed on February 9 to Wheeling reporters (who, at his jovial request, had counseled him to make the anticommunist rather than the housing speech), he openly plagiarized a newly famous predecessor in the Red-hunting field, Representative Richard M. Nixon of California:
Nixon (to the House of Representatives, January 26, 1950): The great lesson which should be learned from the Alger Hiss case is that we are not just dealing with espionage agents who get 30 pieces of silver to obtain the blueprints of a new weapon . . . but this is a far more sinister type of activity, because it permits the enemy to guide and shape our policy.
McCarthy (in the rough draft of his Wheeling speech on February 9, 1950): One thing to remember in discussing the Communists in our government is that we are not dealing with spies who get 30 pieces of silver to steal the blueprint of a new weapon. We are dealing with a far more sinister type of activity because it permits the enemy to guide and shape our policy.
           The senator also included a three-paragraph article written by the Chicago Tribune’s Willard Edwards, a journalistic pioneer in anticommunist “investigations.” Not only was anticommunism old stuff; Joe McCarthy was parroting a line frequently laid down by Nixon, reporters such as Edwards and George Sokolsky, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), numerous Republican oligarchs, and even some conservative Democrats (notably, Pat McCarran of Nevada).
           The “real news” at Wheeling, if any, was in the specificity of McCarthy’s numbers, as they were widely reported, and in the drama of his presentation—“I hold here in my hand” an incriminating document, evidence—after all the generalized perfidy his party had assigned to the Democrats and their New Deal and Fair Deal. At the outset Joe McCarthy displayed his gift for drama. He surely recognized then, too, the ease with which distortion, confidently expressed, could be made to seem fact.

Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Wicker
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

TOM WICKER began covering national politics for the New York Times in 1960. He is the author of ten novels and nine works of nonfiction, including biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Herbert Walker Bush. He lives in Vermont.

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