Edward R. Murrow recently for his role in...


June 23, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

CBS CELEBRATED Edward R. Murrow recently for his role in bringing to an end the reign of terror of the 1950s demagogue, Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Murrow delivered a spirited TV attack on McCarthy, but as I wrote Monday, he did so years after The Sun and other newspapers had begun attacking "McCarthyism."

Yet in the end it wasn't television or newspapers that got Joe McCarthy. It was a trial lawyer's wit, perseverance and, finally, anguish that laid him low for good.

The lawyer was Joseph Nye Welch. He was a member of the prestigious firm of Hale & Dorr in Boston. In 1954, when McCarthy and the Army feuded over his charges of Communists in khaki, Senate hearings ensued.

McCarthy's subcommittee held the hearings, but since his tactics and the Army were both under investigation, he stepped down as chairman to become a witness.

The Army's counsel was similarly a witness, so Welch came down to represent the Army. He was a stooped, bald, bow-tied Iowa farm boy with a Harvard Law diploma, whose gentleness and fairness made him the exact opposite of McCarthy as the drama played out on the black and white TV screens of the day.

The drama of the hearings soon attracted huge daytime audiences (20 million viewers when not every home had a set).

Welch demonstrated the harm McCarthy and his bully-boy assistants were doing to the Army with textbook cross-examination. He converted McCarthy to that stereotypical villain of the witch hunters -- the sullen witness who refuses to answer damaging questions.

Near the end of the hearings, McCarthy chose to charge a young associate of Hale & Dorr who was not involved in the hearings as a subversive (he was not).

With a nation watching, an anguished but furious Welch lectured McCarthy on his recklessness. The audience in the committee room broke into applause, and Acting Chairman Karl Mundt, once a McCarthyite, let it go on and on and on.

The public so turned on McCarthy after this that the full Senate screwed up its courage and censured him that year. When he died in 1957, he had become a joke.

The consensus contemporary view is that it was the honesty of Welch's reaction to the smear of his young associate that made Welch's lecture so devastating, and no doubt it was. But for the record, it should be noted that after 1954, Welch's career took a strange turn.

He became a journalist, a TV personality -- and an actor. He

narrated programs about aspects of the law for the television series "Omnibus." He served as the master of ceremonies for a dramatic series on network television, "Great Mysteries."

And he played the judge in the movie "Anatomy of a Murder." He played himself, some said, thinking of his witty, wise and serious persona from the Army-McCarthy hearings, and he did it so well that he was nominated for an Oscar.

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