It's wrong to rehabilitate McCarthy - even if he was right
As a reporter who used to dog the footsteps of Joe McCarthy when he returned from Washington to campaign back home in Wisconsin, I am most unhappy over efforts in some quarters to rehabilitate the justly earned disrepute of this irresponsible politician who ruined the lives of so many people.
There is, indeed, growing evidence that McCarthy got it "right," back in the 1950s when he charged that there were communist spies among our leading citizens.
Evidence of this Soviet incursion has come with declassification of United States intelligence files on the interception of Soviet spy cables. Scholars viewing this material have concluded that Alger Hiss probably was a Soviet agent and that the US government in the 1930s and '40s harbored hundreds of communist spies and even more fellow travelers. I'm indebted to Ethan Bronner's particularly valuable article in The New York Times for this information.
But McCarthy, at best, was an opportunist. I thought back then - and I still think - he was a phony. To begin with, his zeal for anticommunism was completely artificial. Before charging on Feb. 9, 1950, that there were many high-level US officials who were communists, he had shown no interest in that issue.
Indeed, several books about McCarthy have stated flatly that he got the idea for becoming a communist hunter when, after being elected senator, he was looking around for some issue he could profitably push. It seems that a priest from Georgetown University suggested that he should start a crusade against leading Americans who he said were members of, or were being influenced by, the Communist Party. McCarthy liked the idea - and, obviously, ran with it very hard and very recklessly.
McCarthy stirred up a national hysteria with his warnings, uttered again and again all around the US, that came down to what so many fearful Americans heard as, "the Soviets are among us." He didn't really nail anyone.
It was Richard Nixon whose persistence did so much to drag Alger Hiss down. Instead, McCarthy used vague charges and guilt by association - now called "McCarthyism" - to fortify his campaign of terror.
But let's not forget how successful McCarthy was at spreading fear among so many Americans. There was even polling data showing that the senator, for a short while, was almost as popular as President Eisenhower. He was dangerously divisive.
Then came the so-called McCarthy hearings where the senator overplayed his hand - making the mistake of being so outrageous in his charges that the American people began to turn against him. Then came his censure by the Senate, a disgrace from which he never recovered.
The Joe McCarthy I covered was a man who, at best, had overreached his capacities, he simply wasn't all that bright. At worst, he was a shifty politician who didn't mind using lies or guesses to try to destroy others. Personally, he could be very friendly. He was a master at working crowds. He was an all-American glad-hander.
I saw the bullying side of him, too. Once I heard him threaten to throw a reporter out of his office.
Another time, while speaking at a rally of his fans, McCarthy pointed his finger at us at the press table and, with anger, charged that we were his enemies and, as such, enemies of this country. The crowd muttered and moved toward us threateningly. We got out of there in a hurry.
I won't have McCarthy rehabilitated even if history may find that he was "closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him," as one columnist put it recently in The Washington Post.
McCarthy played a hunch. To the extent that he had it "right" - it was just happenstance. What else can one call it? He had stumbled onto this issue and then pursued it with a blunderbuss approach that hurt a lot of innocent people. That's the way I write it, and the way, I hope, history will make its final judgment of a truly dangerous man and the havoc he wrought.