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Globe Magazine

How Joe McCarthy (yes, that McCarthy) helped launch the Kennedy dynasty

Without assists from the best-known conservative firebrand of their day, JFK and RFK might never have become progressive icons.

After being rebuked by his colleagues in December 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy confers with former aide Bobby Kennedy, who had become chief minority counsel for the investigations subcommittee.
After being rebuked by his colleagues in December 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy confers with former aide Bobby Kennedy, who had become chief minority counsel for the investigations subcommittee.Al Muto/Bettman/Getty Images

­­It was the unlikeliest of political pairings, as America’s frostiest of cold warriors helped kick-start America’s most iconic liberal dynasty. The courtship between left-baiting, table-thumping Senator Joe McCarthy, a farm-bred roughneck from Grand Chute, Wisconsin, and the patrician Kennedys of tony Hyannisport and Palm Beach, was orchestrated by Papa Joe Kennedy and would both empower and embarrass his sons Jack and Bobby.

The two Joes had a lot in common. Both were gruff, defiant Irish-Americans, each predicting he’d end up in either the White House or the jailhouse. Both started public life as FDR Democrats, then grew disillusioned. Kennedy shared McCarthy’s love for cocktail hour gossip, and his disdain for left wingers and the Eastern establishment. As much as politics mattered to Kennedy, a man’s temperament counted for more. That is why the Massachusetts magnate could count as close friends the ultraconservative Joe McCarthy and the archliberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

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Kennedy liked McCarthy personally, saying, “If somebody was against him, he never tried to cut his heart out. He never said that anybody was a stinker.” The stilted language was classic Joe Kennedy. Classic, too, was his inability to see or care about McCarthy’s victims. When the senator started his anti-Communist crusade in 1950, “I thought he’d be a sensation,” Kennedy recalled. He saw McCarthy as “the strongest man in the United States next to [Dwight] Eisenhower.”

Senator McCarthy dated Kennedy sisters Patricia and Eunice in Washington when they visited Jack, and on Cape Cod, where Eunice thought it fun to push McCarthy out of her father’s boat until she learned he couldn’t swim. The Wisconsin senator played shortstop for the Barefoot Boys, the Kennedy family softball team (McCarthy was benched after making four errors). And he cracked a rib during one of the storied touch football games on the lawn in Hyannisport.

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Joseph P. Kennedy in March 1940, when he was US ambassador to Great Britain.
Joseph P. Kennedy in March 1940, when he was US ambassador to Great Britain.J. A. Hampton/Getty Images

A realist, Joe Kennedy understood that money remained the coin of the American political realm the same way it had been in the days of his businessman-politician father, and he put his fortune to work on behalf of his children and his friends. Just how much he gave McCarthy is uncertain, since public reporting was not required in the 1940s and ’50s. Kennedy insisted that he chipped in “only a couple of thousand.” But some estimates say his donations started as early as 1952 and ran as high as $500,000, which would have made Kennedy McCarthy’s most generous political benefactor.

Whatever the amount, McCarthy listened when Joe Kennedy made it clear what he wanted from him in 1952: to stay the hell out of Massachusetts. Jack, then a callow Democratic congressman, was running a bare-knuckled race for the Senate against incumbent Republican Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. The Bay State, after all, had enough Catholics and conservatives to make it hard-core McCarthy country, which is why even deep-blue Democrats like Tip O’Neill and John McCormack never criticized the Wisconsin senator. Joe Kennedy understood better than any of them how a nod by McCarthy toward Lodge, his Republican colleague, could on its own doom the bid by young Jack.

But a fondness for the Kennedys and their money was just half the story. The rest, as it was so often, was about settling scores. There were rumors that Lodge was plotting against McCarthy with two of President Eisenhower’s closest advisers. “I’m going to teach that bastard of a Lodge to suck eggs,” McCarthy told his office manager. He did that by setting what he knew would be too high a price for his support: that Lodge would have to fully and publicly embrace McCarthy. Lodge told a surprisingly similar version: “I asked [McCarthy] whether he would come into Massachusetts and campaign against Kennedy without mentioning me in any way,” he explained later. “He told me that he couldn’t do this. He would endorse me but he would say nothing against the son of Joe Kennedy. I told McCarthy ‘thanks but no thanks.’ " Given the narrowness of Kennedy’s ultimate margin of victory in 1952 — 3 percent, compared with Eisenhower’s 9-percent win that year in Massachusetts — McCarthy’s staying away probably was as decisive in Jack’s favor as the pundits said.

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Months later, it was Bobby’s turn to get a boost from McCarthy, who had been reelected and elevated to chair the powerful Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. One of the first calls McCarthy took, when searching for a chief counsel, was from the other Joe. This time the senior Kennedy was plugging Bobby, whom he’d once described as the runt of his litter of nine — the lamest athlete, most tongue-tied, and least likely to matter. He now understood that Bobby was the most like him of his children, in everything from his capacity to hate as well as love, to his hard-as-nails single-mindedness (in Joe’s case it was to make money so his kids wouldn’t have to, while Bobby’s three totems were, in descending order, the Kennedy family, God, and the Democratic Party).

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During his undergraduate years at Harvard in the late 1940s, Bobby had shown where he stood on McCarthy’s soon-to-be holy war against Communism when he defended the senator in impassioned debates with friends. In a law school paper, he argued that President Franklin Roosevelt had sold out US interests in his agreement with the Soviets on the configuration of postwar Europe. His first job after law school in 1951 was investigating Bolsheviks at the Internal Security Division of the Justice Department. And as manager for his brother Jack’s Senate campaign, he attacked Senator Lodge for being soft on Communism.

Now, as McCarthy weighed his options for chief counsel, Bobby said he was almost as alarmed as the senator about the “serious internal security threat to the United States,” adding that “Joe McCarthy seemed to be the only one who was doing anything about it.” The lawmaker and the newly-minted lawyer both had the whatever-it-takes instincts of alley fighters, which Bobby believed they’d need in a Cold War where the enemy fought dirty. “Joe’s methods may be a little rough,” Bobby once told a pair of journalists, “but, after all, his goal is to expose Communists in government, and that’s a worthy goal. So why are you reporters so critical of his methods?”

There was one last reason why a job with McCarthy was so appealing to Bobby Kennedy. Bobby knew his father admired McCarthy, and he saw the senator as a reflection of much that he loved in his dad. Working for a tough-minded jingoist like McCarthy also was Bobby’s way of trying to erase the public’s lingering memory of Joe Kennedy as a Nazi apologist and, as many British still saw FDR’s early-war ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, a coward. What Bobby failed to see was that his father — an isolationist who believed that Communists, like fascists, could be accommodated until their regimes collapsed from within — was far less of a cold warrior than McCarthy was. Less even than Bobby himself was on the way to becoming.

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Senator John F. Kennedy (middle, foreground) the day after he beat Henry Cabot Lodge. Campaign manager Bobby Kennedy is at left.
Senator John F. Kennedy (middle, foreground) the day after he beat Henry Cabot Lodge. Campaign manager Bobby Kennedy is at left. Boston Globe Staff File Photo

Joe McCarthy couldn’t say no to Joe Kennedy — of course he would give Kennedy’s son a job. It was just a question of what position would be right for Bobby and for sticky subcommittee politics. McCarthy wanted as his top aide both Bobby and another ambitious and combative young lawyer, Roy Cohn. The senator’s solution was to make Cohn chief counsel. Ex-FBI agent Francis “Frip” Flanagan would stay on as general counsel, and Bobby would start as Flanagan’s assistant, with the promise of becoming his replacement. When reporters asked who would be doing what, McCarthy sheepishly smiled, spread his hands wide, and confessed, “I don’t know.”

With official lines of authority hazy, an informal hierarchy of duties and messy loyalties took shape. It soon became apparent to Cohn that, as he put it, Bobby “was my enemy.” It was an impression that Flanagan helped crystallize, according to Cohn’s autobiography, telling Cohn, “First of all, [Bobby] isn’t crazy about Jews. Second, you’re not exactly a member of the Palm Beach polo set. And thirdly, you’ve got the job he wanted.” For his part, Cohn saw in Bobby the Irish toughs who prowled the streets when he was growing up in the Bronx, and he knew how to bully back, which he set out to do. “Roy [Cohn] treats [Kennedy] as a gofer. Literally as a gofer,” observed Washington journalist Murrey Marder. “Not as a lawyer, fellow counselor, or anything like that.”

To some, the Cohn-Kennedy conflict seemed like an insider’s game, interesting only because of the seminal figures they would both become. It was much more than that. The fight would help define McCarthy’s legacy. Cohn “was super smart and super manipulative and super out for himself,” observed Henry Kissinger, himself a master in the exercise of political power.

Whether things would actually have been different under Bobby as chief counsel is unknowable. McCarthy, after all, was the boss, and there never was a doubt where he was heading. There were, however, questions about tactics, ethics, and rudimentary maturity. For all his genius, Cohn reinforced McCarthy’s worst instincts. Cohn and his sidekick, the subcommittee’s unsalaried adviser G. David Schine, took the senator “up the mountain and showed him all those wonderful things,” Bobby would say later. “He was on a toboggan. It was so exciting and exhilarating as he went downhill that it didn’t matter to him if he hit a tree at the bottom.”

Both Bobby and Jack understood McCarthy’s magnetism as well as the menace that turned his name into an “ism” personifying character assassination and fear-mongering. How they responded to that spoke volumes about the brothers’ own differences in temperament and outlook. The silky-smooth and highbrow Jack wanted little to do with McCarthy; the more gut-trusting, free-spirited Bobby embraced the Wisconsinite as a friend. The public may have thought McCarthy a “monster,” but he actually “was just plain fun,” Bobby’s widow, Ethel, told me. “He didn’t rant and roar, he was a normal guy.”

McCarthy (center) with aide Roy Cohn (right) and adviser G. David Schine at the Army-McCarthy hearings.
McCarthy (center) with aide Roy Cohn (right) and adviser G. David Schine at the Army-McCarthy hearings. Wisconsin Historical Society

Bobby ended up quitting his job with the senator in 1953, when he wasn’t given the promotion he’d been promised. “[W]hen Cohn took complete charge of the staff in June, 1953,” Bobby wrote afterward, “I left.” In fact, Cohn never took complete charge. And Bobby’s resignation took effect more than a month later than he let on. Critics would accuse Kennedy of overplaying his conflict with Cohn, understating his time with the controversial McCarthy, and trying to look like he walked out as a matter of conscience.

Whatever warnings he sounded about Cohn, Bobby let McCarthy himself off the hook too easily. If Cohn was the master manipulator Bobby portrayed him as, rather than a right-hand man doing McCarthy’s bidding, Bobby could have stayed and been able to help the senator rein him in. Whatever his reason for leaving, his timing could not have been better, since McCarthy’s worst days were just ahead when he would level unsubstantiated charges of Soviet infiltration of the mighty US Army. FBI files hint that J. Edgar Hoover tipped off his friend Joe Kennedy to McCarthy’s impending woes, and Joe persuaded Bobby it was time to go. Cohn later joked that Bobby owed him: “Would Bobby Kennedy have become a liberal icon had he been Joe McCarthy’s right hand during his ‘witch-hunt’[?]”

The final curtain of McCarthy’s witch hunt — the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954 — proved the senator’s undoing. In December, at long last, his Senate colleagues condemned him in a 67 to 22 vote. Jack Kennedy, however, was missing in action, unconvincingly claiming that he couldn’t vote or even indicate his inclination because he was recovering from back surgery. “I don’t think [Jack] Kennedy was ever terribly upset by McCarthy as a moral issue,” biographer James MacGregor Burns told an interviewer. “To a great extent Kennedy missed the moral issue of McCarthy.”

Bobby was quicker to grasp the immorality but was more loyal than his big brother, and even his father. While he’d worked for McCarthy for just seven-and-a-half months, Bobby stayed his friend till the end, making his last visit to the senator just before McCarthy died. His job with Joe launched Bobby’s career, injecting into his life passion and direction glaringly absent before then. His relationship with the Wisconsin senator became, too, a paradox he couldn’t escape, serving for some as a testament to his fidelity and patriotism, and for others as a measure of his youthful misdirection.

Senator McCarthy died at the age of 48 in 1957, liquor having eaten away at his liver. Jack stayed away from the funeral and urged his brother to do the same, but Bobby insisted on being there. At the church in Appleton, Wisconsin, however, he sat in the choir loft where nobody would see him; at the graveside, he stood apart from other Washington officials. And when the service was done, he begged journalists not to mention his being there for fear of embarrassing himself and his brother, the man who would become president of the United States in just three years.

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Larry Tye is a former Globe reporter. This story was adapted from his forthcoming book, “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.” Copyright © 2020 by Larry Tye. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.