Joe’s red scare

Boogeymen do not enjoy a long afterlife in this country—unless, of course, they become legends. In the past, newspapers could effect this transformation. Today, the fieriest kiln is Hollywood, and thus one can bet that Senator Joseph McCarthy will be remembered awhile longer, thanks to Good Night, and Good Luck. Shot in elegant black-and-white, the 2005 film vividly re-imagines television newsman Edward R. Murrow’s attack on McCarthy’s witch hunt.

But the movie only tells part of the story. As Tom Wicker reveals in his crisp new book, Shooting Star, by the time Murrow’s program aired, there were already voices calling for McCarthy to be reined in. In January 1954, then-Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders ridiculed the bully on the Senate floor. And he was not alone. McCarthy had grappled with the head of the Army, the CIA, even then-President Eisenhower—and made powerful enemies.

What kind of hysteria would possess a man to take on a war-hero president? Wicker cannot fully answer this question because there really is no answer. As his powers began to wane, McCarthy seems to have been just that crazy. Accepting this unknowability from the start, Shooting Star still gives readers an idea of where McCarthy’s bravado came from and also how much he was a product of his time.

From the beginning, the future senator from Wisconsin was a hard charger. At age 17, he managed a flock of 2000 chickens on his father’s farm in Appleton. He later went back to school and finished four years of study in just nine months. McCarthy continued this tear into college, working up to 80 hours a week managing two service stations—and spending the rest of his time gambling and drinking. He graduated in 1935 and, on a bet, opened his own law practice in the town of Waupaca.

Thus began McCarthy’s career of bluffing, bullying and charming his way into positions of power. In 1939, McCarthy unseated a popular district judge, and it was then—when he was still a Democrat—that McCarthyism was born. The young politician learned that once a charge hit a newspaper, the damage it could do would far outstrip the humiliation of a correction. Most people believe that where there is smoke, there is something burning, and so it goes.

It’s hard to think of a better journalist than Wicker for this material. A former New York Times Washington bureau chief, he is the Damon Runyon of bureaucratic infighting. You can almost hear the punches being thrown. He also understands politics. Wicker has written a short but superb biography of George H.W. Bush. But McCarthy emerges from this portrait as the polar opposite of Bush. While Poppy amassed power by making friends, McCarthy made alliances by becoming the Republicans’ junkyard dog—a Richard Nixon on steroids. In the beginning, this was helpful to Republicans, who were shocked when McCarthy dusted off the anticommunist rhetoric kicking around Washington and turned it into effective political ammo. McCarthy’s first major speech on the subject contained information that was several years old—and incorrect. But the press still reported it. Sound familiar?

The press corps’ behavior through this scandal was as abysmal as it was in the build-up to the current Iraq war. With each speech, McCarthy twisted the facts more, earning more publicity for himself and putting Democrats on the ropes. Morning editions kept the toot going.

In the end, McCarthy was done in by that age-old failing: hubris. Wicker clearly believes this was a character trait McCarthy possessed all along. More disturbingly, though, Shooting Star reveals that the communist chaser’s career arc might have gone another way had Washington not done so much to encourage his nastiness.