When test audiences saw early cuts of the 2005 Edward R. Murrow movie "Good Night, and Good Luck," some viewers didn't like the actor playing his nemesis, Senator Joseph McCarthy. The performance, they complained, was "over the top."
But Mr. McCarthy wasn't played by an actor. The filmmakers used actual video of the Wisconsin senator from the 1950s, and every word and expression was his own.
Even in these days of attack ads and character assassination, McCarthy's venomous brand of political warfare seems unreal. But in a decade now viewed as an age of innocence, this angry man held center stage in American politics, intimidating his colleagues and attracting the allegiance of millions.
How did McCarthy get so far? He had a lot of help, as veteran journalist Tom Wicker reveals in his engrossing new biography Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy.
Senators, the president, and a craven press corps are all fellow travelers as McCarthy rises to power. But "Tailgunner Joe" is also a remarkable character in his own right: Armed with brilliant political instincts, mastery of congressional procedure, and "brusque charm," this former chicken farmer had all the tools he needed to disrupt the capital for years.
The national spotlight first swung to McCarthy in 1950, when he made a speech in Wheeling, W.Va., and declared he had a list of Communists working in the State Department.
In Mr. Wicker's captivating play-by-play, the press snapped to attention and turned McCarthy into a star, never mind that he couldn't get his numbers straight, spouting off about 205 "bad risks" one day and 57 "card-carrying Communists" the next, then claiming, amazingly, to have misplaced his list.
As Wicker points out, the real Soviet espionage threat came during and shortly after World War II. By the time McCarthy started his crusade, he was "on to nothing but echoes from years gone by."
This inconvenient reality didn't stop McCarthy, who lost the best parts of his personality - generosity and loyalty - to an all-encompassing witch hunt, a whirligig that even sucked in the White House.
"Shooting Star" is small in size - just 194 pages - and small in scope. Some topics, including Mr. Murrow's anti-McCarthy crusade, get short shrift. But the biography still packs plenty of revealing details, especially regarding politicians who were anything but profiles in courage. To take on McCarthy was to risk being called a Communist sympathizer during a Red Scare, and few were willing.
A skittish Sen. John F. Kennedy, in fact, scrupulously avoided criticizing McCarthy, while even President Dwight Eisenhower held his tongue, declining to bash a fellow Republican he couldn't stand.
Rampaging through the reputations of the powerful and powerless, the renegade senator finally imploded in the Army-McCarthy hearings, vividly recapped in "Shooting Star."
After a trademark bit of McCarthy bluster, a lawyer named Joseph Welch administered the coup de grâcewith his brief, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" speech. (As Wicker points out, Mr. Welch had actually been baiting McCarthy in the moments before one of history's most memorable comeuppances.)
McCarthy lost influence and descended into alcoholism - a pathetic figure still eagerly glad- handing the strangers he meets in the halls of Congress, including a young reporter from North Carolina named Tom Wicker.
Back then, "I was unable to see beyond the shadow I had encountered," Wicker writes. Now, with nearly 50 years of perspective, a more mature Wicker helps readers see the man inside the monster, "a victim of human aspiration who fought desperately and with uncommon success to achieve the wrong dream."
• Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer living in San Diego, Calif.