A brief encounter with Senator McCarthy

My 15-minute interview took place as McCarthy shaved and dressed.

For years when people have heard this tale, they've said, "Well, there's one you can tell your grandchildren." But time is moving on. I see no sign of progeny from my progeny, and the coming Academy Awards may provide one of the last widespread public attentions to the central figure in this tale.

So, here goes. I once interviewed Joseph McCarthy in his jockey shorts.

This may not mean much to you, but when I saw "Good Night, and Good Luck," George Clooney's film on TV newsman Edward R. Murrow's struggle against the Communist-hunting senator, I was reminded of what it felt like to be a shiny new newspaper reporter facing off against the man even Dwight Eisenhower would not tackle.

And I decided that Mr. Clooney's best casting decision was not actor David Strathairn, nominated for an Oscar in the role of Murrow, but to let Mr. McCarthy play himself by using old TV footage. Anyone who ever tried to press the senator for information would, I think, say that no matter the talents of the actor chosen to play him, something would be missing. I hate to say you had to be there, but you had to be there.

I had to be there on a cold Saturday afternoon in St. Paul in March 1952. McCarthy was to speak that night at the University of Minnesota, continuing his campaign to discredit a State Department China expert named O. Edmund Clubb, a former Minnesotan, as a disloyal American.

The Minneapolis newspaper that had hired me out of college a year earlier needed a story for its early edition and the more senior reporter who was to cover the later speech couldn't handle both. So, after a quick run through background material I was off to the St. Paul home where McCarthy was staying. He had flown in earlier and after his nap I was to have about 15 minutes with him.

They didn't tell me where. It turned out to be a bathroom. When I was ushered into the steamy room, McCarthy, shower over, was standing in front of the mirror, lather on his face, using a safety razor. All he wore was a pair of jockey shorts.

(Note: In anticipation of correspondence from the maker of shorts that carry a capital letter "J," let me say I was not able to check the senator's brand at the time, but they definitely met the current generic definition in the Webster New World dictionary: "jockey shorts - boys' or men's close-fitting knit undershorts, as of cotton, with an elastic waistband.")

It was not a big room, and McCarthy took up quite a bit of it. He was not a tall man but wide and thick. News accounts usually referred to him as "burly." He greeted me affably and after some small talk I realized there was but one place in the room to sit and take notes. Not a very commanding position from which to question the man who had America hanging on every word, but the toilet seat would have to do. I took it and found myself looking straight at a nasty stomach scar. Not the one that McCarthy claimed he got as a Marine tail-gunner in World War II and his detractors said came from a hazing accident on the ship carrying him to the Pacific. That was down on a leg.

From that viewpoint, you might think he would be somewhat more vulnerable than at a rostrum, finger pointing and voice raised high against the "traitors" in the land. Little chance.

McCarthy had said that in his Minneapolis speech he would name the State Department official who had reversed a department loyalty board that ruled Clubb had lied about his past. Try to get that name for the first edition, my editor said.

The senator made quick work of that. Not until the speech, he said, firmly. There was no need to explain. The many fewer TV cameras that prowled news scenes in those days would be there, while they certainly were not in this bathroom.

Then it was thrust and parry. The young reporter's inexperienced thrusts met with parries that rang with the familiar broad accusations that the country had been hearing for two years and would hear for two more before McCarthy's fiery light went out. When the reporter pressed mildly for more detail on accusations against Clubb, he was told "your editor" would probably agree the case was strong enough.

Soon it was over. The young reporter had not distinguished himself, but probably fared no worse than his more senior and experienced colleagues in Washington and elsewhere. The media resolve to stiffen its spine would come later.

The young reporter returned to his office. "Nice try," his editor said.

McCarthy spoke later to a crowd of more than 1,000, most of them students.

Clubb, suspended while his appeal was heard, was shunted to a minor post after Secretary of State Dean Atchison approved the overturn of the appeal. He resigned, later writing that "the government of which I had long been a part had been disloyal to me."

Ed Goodpaster has been an editor at Time Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Baltimore Sun. He taught journalism at Hood College in Frederick, Md., and lives in

Baltimore.

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