Witch-hunter hunter

Michael Ybarra

Courtesy Of Nevada Humanities

U.S. Sen. Patrick McCarran of Nevada is largely forgotten today, his name now known to his home state mainly for an airport and a boulevard. But there was a time when he was well known not just in Nevada butnationally. His legislation providing for race-based immigration and U.S. concentration camps scared many. Author Michael Ybarra published Washington Gone Crazy in 2004, an account of McCarran’s activities during the McCarthy era (“McCarran back in the news,” Sept. 16, 2004). Ybarra will speak on March 1 in the McKinley Arts and Culture Center at 7 p.m. as part of the annual Nevada Humanities’ Books and Authors Series.

Why should folks today care about something that happened in the 1950s?

Good question. Probably should have an answer for that. Well, I’d say if people care what’s going on in the newspaper these days, they might be interested to know that it’s not the first time the country’s gone through a frightening period when civil liberties and national security seem to be in mortal conflict.

Do you draw an analogy between then and now?

Well, not specifically. I think it’s in the afterword to the book. You know, I do in passing mention that I started the book really as an exercise in excavating an interesting historical period. I started it before 9/11, and I finished it after 9/11, and suddenly a lot of the things that I had been writing about—you know, academic examinations of free speech and national security conflicts—had a very contemporary relevance.

When your book came out, you came here for a signing. I did a story at the time. I was surprised at the reaction I got. People were flabbergasted that happened here in Nevada and that such a figure would have been tolerated. When I was growing up, McCarran was like a god around here.

I suppose it’s largely a factor of the state’s population growth. I don’t know how many native-born Nevadans there are these days, so the population has come from somewhere else, from people migrating from other states, so they don’t know anything about Nevada’s history. They don’t know anything about McCarran’s contributions to it. You know, from a parochial standpoint, McCarran did a lot of good for Nevada. He got a lot of money. He got a lot of funds to build all kinds of things. So from a pork-barrel standpoint, McCarran was probably one of the best senators in the union. If you took a national look at his contributions to the country’s well being, you could well come to the opposite point of view.

Do you think people have become more sophisticated about these kinds of things?

Well, yes, that’s part of it. And it’s always easier to look back 50 years and scratch your head and say, people must have been crazy to have gone so, well, crazy, over the Communist issue then. But I suspect that a few decades hence, people will be saying the same thing about the terrorism issue.

The [880-page] book could easily be mistaken for a doorstop. What got left out?

Not much, really. I mean I trimmed it a little bit. … I could have written more about McCarran’s career in Nevada. I mean, he really was a monumental figure in Nevada history, and he did many things in many different arenas of policy. My focus was really on national security aspects of what he did late in his career. You could write another book—maybe not quite as big, but probably a big book—about McCarran just in Nevada.