Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Larry Tye's "Demagogue"

Larry Tye is the best-selling author of Bobby Kennedy and Satchel, as well as Superman, The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising from the Rails, and co-author, with Kitty Dukakis, of Shock. Previously an award-winning reporter and national writer at the Boston Globe and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, he now runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship.

Tye applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, and reported the following:
Page 99 is an ideal teaser for my book, and for understanding where Joe McCarthy stood early in a Senate career that would make him the most controversial man in America.

It opens by talking about McCarthy’s personal and political friendship with the all-powerful head of the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover realized McCarthy could be an ally in his battle to root out Reds and pinkos, and he told his agents to play nice with the senator. As I write, “the affection was mutual. Joe called the FBI ‘the only bureau in Washington that gets the highest praise from everyone,’ adding that ‘many of us feel you should have more men in the FBI at this time.

I continue by noting what such schmoozing with kingmakers meant to the one-time poultry farmer and grocery clerk from rural Wisconsin:
Joe acted as if such relationships were the most natural thing in the world, but he hadn’t lost sight of how far he had come. In 1947, at an especially swank cocktail party in the Capitol, the freshman lawmaker stood in the corner with a friend reflecting on the big shots whose hands he’d been shaking: “I wonder what these people would think if they knew I once raised chickens.” Whether or not they would have cared about that, some might have been shocked at how, rather than finding a place of his own in Washington, he was camping out college-style in a small room he was renting from his office manager, Ray Kiermas. Underwear was piled up under the bed, and pants were wedged under the mattress in hopes of removing the wrinkles. “Whenever we move to a new home we tell him the address on moving day,” said Kiermas. “He comes there that night instead of going to the old place.” While Joe didn’t mean to be insensitive, he was to Ray and even more to his wife, Dolores. On the eve of one of their moves, he told her he’d invited a few people to dinner, and persisted although she explained that the dishes were packed. That night eighteen journalists turned up. She unpacked, then repacked, everything that was needed. Joe thought nothing of it: “Everyone sat around on crates and had a fine time.” [His best friend Urban] Van Susteren compared him to “a stray dog. He’d stay three days at one place, three at another, and four at another. He’d sleep on the couch, on the floor, on the porch — it didn’t matter at all to him.”
My book seeks to balance the human and public sides of Joe McCarthy, and looks for the kind of nuance we can get only now that I was given first and exclusive access to the senator’s personal and professional papers, which were under lock and key for sixty years.

It’s not often that a man’s name becomes an ism, in this case a synonym for reckless accusation, guilt by association, and fear-mongering. In the early 1950s, the senator from Wisconsin promised America a holy war against a Communist “conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” While the conspiracy and infamy claims were a stretch, the body count was measurable: a government engineer, current and former US senators, and incalculable others who committed suicide to escape McCarthy and his warriors; hundreds more whose careers and reputations he crushed; and the hundreds of thousands he browbeat into a tongue-tied silence. His targets all learned the futility of taking on a tyrant who recognized no restraints and would do anything — anything — to win.

Examining all the fresh evidence of McCarthy’s official excesses and his behind-the-scenes humanity makes him more authentic, if also more confounding. Today, every schoolchild in America is introduced to Joe McCarthy, but generally as a caricature, and parents and grandparents recall the senator mainly with catchphrases like witch-hunter or with a single word: evil. The new records let us shave away the myths and understand how the junior senator from Grand Chute rose to become powerful enough not just to intimidate Dwight Eisenhower, our most popular postwar president, but to drive legislators and others to take their own lives. 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. Somewhere between that saint and that sinner lies the real man. He was in fact more insecure than we imagined, more undone by his boozing, more embracing of friends and vengeful toward foes, and more sinister.

Before today’s era of unprecedented political brawling and bile, even a groundbreaking biography of Joe McCarthy might have seemed like a chapter of American history too painful to revisit, one with little relevance to a republic that had outgrown his appeals to xenophobia. An autocratically inclined Russia might unite behind the ironfisted Vladimir Putin, but surely this would never happen in the judicious, eternally fair-minded United States. After the 2016 election, nobody needs reminding that this is the story of today and of us.
Visit Larry Tye's website.

--Marshal Zeringue