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The making of a political monster in ‘Demagogue’

Senator Joseph McCarthy (right) spoke to his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, during a hearing of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee in Washington in April 1954.Byron Rollins/AP/file

On the night of Feb. 9, 1950, at a Lincoln Day dinner in Wheeling, W.Va., Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin was reported to have announced, “I have here in my hand a list” of 205 members of the Communist Party who were working at the US Department of State. Waving his “list,” McCarthy headed off on a cross-country toot. By the time he arrived in Salt Lake City a few days later, the number had been reduced to 57, and newsmen were asking for proof. He joked to one reporter that he got the number 57 from the bottle of Heinz 57 ketchup on the speaker’s table. Later, drinking with two other reporters, “between his eighth and ninth bourbons,” he claimed that the list was lost, or stolen, before drunkenly conceding, “Hell, there ain’t no list.”

No matter. He just kept on lying, and on the theory that Big Lies work even better than little ones, convinced millions of Americans that their government institutions were infested with Reds under Kremlin control. For four years, lugging around a fat briefcase stuffed with bogus evidence or possibly containing nothing at all, he traipsed around the country, seeming to enjoy himself immensely. (Sometimes, after wrecking the career or ruining the life of some poor teacher or bureaucrat, he would throw his arm around his victim’s shoulder and invite him out for a drink.) McCarthy became, writes Larry Tye in “Demagogue,” a kind of “shadow president,” one who made everyone fearful of his power, up to and including the actual president. By January 1954, he was an “ism.” Fully half of all Americans told pollsters that they felt good about the Wisconsin senator, compared to just 29 percent with an unfavorable view.


Tye captures “Low Blow Joe” in all his shambolic ingloriousness. A former Boston Globe reporter and author of a well-regarded Bobby Kennedy biography, Tye is a relentless digger, and he had more access than earlier historians — McCarthy’s family papers and medical records were, for the first time, opened to him, and he was able to mine long secret congressional transcripts. The result is an epic expose that may overwhelm readers with its detail but will leave them shaking their heads over the rise and fall of the greatest demagogue in American history, with the possible exception of the current White House incumbent.

McCarthy became, himself, a true believer in the communist threat. Indeed, especially during World War II, some Kremlin spies had infiltrated Washington, though they were almost all gone or rounded up before McCarthy began his crusade. But as Tye astutely points out, “Joe was anti-elite long before he was anti-Red.” Not unlike Donald Trump, his real success came from tapping into the resentments of the outs against the ins. Harvard, which McCarthy likened to the “Kremlin on the Charles,” was a favorite target. The university resisted, in a sometimes squishy sort of way, opting to expunge a few of its own pinkos. Tye quotes a sociology grad student who was pushed by the dean not only to name names to the FBI but to get psychiatric counseling.


There were occasional profiles in courage. The one Republican senator to firmly defy McCarthy was also the senate’s only woman, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Ernest Hemingway wrote McCarthy, “You are a shit” and “[I] would knock you on your ass.” But politicians, celebrities, and the press by and large bowed or caviled. Long before cable TV, McCarthy knew how to play the righteous bully in a way that made money for the media. The Lucepress — Time and Life, the great magazines of the day — initially confronted McCarthy but backed off and tepidly applauded his forays against the Reds. (Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Reds baseball team temporarily changed their name to “Redlegs.”)


Tye calls President Eisenhower “enabler in chief” and accuses him of a “policy of appeasement” against McCarthy. This judgment is too harsh. True, Eisenhower was slow to stand up to the senator from Wisconsin, but as historian David Nichols and others have shown, Eisenhower effectively worked behind the scenes to wreck McCarthy, or perhaps better said, enable him to destroy himself.

The denouement came in the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954. McCarthy had recklessly tried to smear an army general, Ralph Zwicker, who had been a hero on D-Day, and, just as significantly, a World War II comrade of General Eisenhower. In congressional hearings before a large television audience — a new phenomenon — McCarthy blustered and ranted and grew cruel. Under cross-examination by a Boston lawyer named Joseph Welch, McCarthy turned on Welch’s assistant, Fred Fisher Jr., who, snarled McCarthy, had belonged to the National Lawyers Guild “long after it had been exposed as a legal arm of the Communist Party.” The pixie-ish, bow-tied Welch recoiled in horror at the demagogue’s attempt to smear the blameless young lawyer. Welch famously demanded, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”


That was the end of McCarthy. He plummeted in the polls and was soon a spent force. American decency had — at long last — triumphed.

DEMAGOGUE: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy

By Larry Tye

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 608 pp., $36

Evan Thomas is the author of “Ike’s Bluff” and, most recently, “First: Sandra Day O’Connor.”