Senator Joe McCarthy: The original polarizing political figure

Biographer Larry Tye draws on copious resources for “Demagogue,” but McCarthy’s career remains a cautionary tale of power and unfounded accusations. 

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy” by Larry Tye, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 597 pp.

It has been said that the central task of a biographer is revision. It was part of Larry Tye’s mission in his 2016 book “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” and that revisionism becomes doubly important when it comes to the subject of Tye’s new book, “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.”

As Tye points out immediately, McCarthy is part of a comparatively tiny cast of characters in American civic folklore who are characterized as purely evil – as cautionary tales. With McCarthy, revisionism hits a brick wall. On a fundamental level, he is undeniably unsalvageable.

Tye mostly seems to know this. “I seek not to redeem the Wisconsin senator but rather to unmask fanatics and fabricators on all sides in a way that presents a truer, more fully dimensional portrait of a figure so central to the narrative of America,” he writes. “Pulling open the curtain, we find Senator McCarthy revealed as neither the Genghis Khan his enemies depicted nor the Joan of Arc rendered by friends.”

The real man, Tye contends, is somewhere between saint and sinner, and in order to flesh out his portrait, Tye has researched extensively and consulted more archival material than has been available to any previous McCarthy biographer, including information from the FBI, CIA, the Russian Foreign Ministry, and the personal recollections of McCarthy’s wife, his family, and the children of his various victims. 

All of this research allows Tye to correct the biographical record on a few comparatively minor points, but mere corrections do not provide a ringing defense. McCarthy’s postwar career only makes it more difficult for anyone trying to find a relatable human being underneath the myth: He became a senator from Wisconsin in 1946 and ostentatiously hunted Communists and gay men in a series of public accusations and charges, which culminated in his participation in the Army-McCarthy Senate hearings of 1954. The hearings were a public sensation. “Gallup found that an astounding 78 million Americans understood the basic charges and countercharges,” Tye writes, “which was substantially more than could name their senator, their congressman, and probably Lassie.”

And although Tye stresses that the McCarthy revealed in the private hearings is even worse than the one Americans saw on live TV, there’s a certain poetic symmetry in the fact that just as McCarthy’s rise to brutish, bullying power happened on camera, so too did the beginning of his fall. On June 9, 1954, the Army chief counsel Joseph Nye Welch famously asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” As Tye writes, “The question hung in the air of the hearing room and living rooms across America, and became the watchword of the Army-McCarthy saga. ... The audience at first seemed stunned, then, defying the chairman’s long-standing admonition, it burst into loud and long applause in support of Welch.”

The end came quickly after that. Public opinion turned against McCarthy, the Senate voted to censure him, and he died at age 48 in 1957. Tye narrates all of this in greater detail and with greater sympathy than any previous biographer, and he recognizes not only the uphill task of even partially defending McCarthy but also the dark associations with the present political moment. 

Tye draws a link between McCarthyism and Trumpism. “To make sense of Donald Trump’s rise, reporters swarmed into America’s heartland to interview his angry white believers,” he writes. “Another vital way to understand what happened is to look back at the bully who set the guideposts.” The lessons that McCarthy failed to learn from the events of his own life, Tye writes, are straightforward: “Stretch the truth often enough and not only will people never trust you, but even you will have trouble remembering what is real. Malign people enough and they will fight back in kind, with evidence as half-baked as yours.” It’s every demagogue’s dilemma, he adds: “they can’t help lying and smearing.”

“Demagogue” does an impressive job of shedding new light on Joe McCarthy, but the more light is shed, the more repulsive he appears. “The more we learn,” Tye writes, “the fewer heroes this story has.”

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