Said to George Bush, "When Joe McCarthy went...

BILL CLINTON

October 19, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

BILL CLINTON said to George Bush, "When Joe McCarthy went around the country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong. He was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism."

Prescott Bush did stand up to McCarthy. What makes that remarkable is that few Republican senators would do so in Joe's heyday. What makes it even more remarkable is that Bush was one of the few senators who actually liked old Joe.

They met in 1952, when McCarthy was at the peak of his political power. He was the most influential public official in the land. Republican candidates for high office begged McCarthy to campaign for them. They gushed over him. They praised his reckless demagogic witch-hunting. Even Dwight Eisenhower running for president that year trimmed his sails to get McCarthy's support.

Some analysts calculate that McCarthy's blue-jawed smile elected at least eight Republicans to the Senate that year. (And one Democrat, John F. Kennedy, who kept his own mouth shut and whose father talked McCarthy out of campaigning for Kennedy's Republican opponent.)

Prescott Bush was a candidate for the Senate in 1952. He met McCarthy for the first time at a rally in Bridgeport. Bush later recalled:

"The place was packed, with standing room only. I never saw such a wild bunch of monkeys in any meeting I've ever attended. I went on stage with my knees shaking." He "mumbled" something to the effect that while he admired McCarthy's objectives he did not approve of his methods. Sad but true, that really amounted to "standing up to" Joe McCarthy in those days.

"With that [Bush continued], the roof went off with hisses and catcalls and 'throw him out!'. They booed and screamed at me. And Joe McCarthy got up, from across the stage, and he walked over and shook hands with me. I was taken aback by this very friendly gesture, in view of all the booing going on. And he said, 'Pres' -- he'd never seen me before -- 'Pres, I want you to have dinner with me after the show's over.' "

Bush and McCarthy had dinner. McCarthy offered him campaign funds, which he declined, and Bush, struck by the difference in the public and private Joe McCarthys, came to like him.

Bush won that election, and in 1954, before his first term was half over, he publicly opposed McCarthy and voted to censure him. When the Senate voted censure, McCarthy's power evaporated, and many senators who had treated him with reverence and warmth deserted him.

Bush didn't. In 1957, both men were in the Naval Hospital at Bethesda. Bush tried to visit McCarthy but wasn't allowed to. McCarthy heard of it and called him to thank him for his kindness. It was one of the last kindnesses ever shown to McCarthy. The next day he died.

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