The prototype of Dan Burton's dirty tactics

May 19, 1998|By Theo Lippman Jr.

REP. DAN Burton of Indiana is being criticized even by some of his fellow Republicans for releasing doctored transcripts of taped conversations between Webster L. Hubbell and his wife, made while Hubbell was in prison.

The way the tapes were edited makes even protestations of innocence sound like confessions to crimes.

Some Democrats in Congress and some journalists are comparing this to the heyday of Sen. Joe McCarthy's demagogic reign of terror back in the 1950s. For example, New York Times columnist Frank Rich said it reminded him of "the prototype of 1954" when during Senate hearings on alleged Communists in the Army McCarthy tried to make points with a doctored photograph.

Actually, the prototype use of doctored photographs in furtherance of McCarthy's fabled, demagogic smearing of all his enemies on the left went back a few years earlier than 1954. The first, most irresponsible and effective use of such a tactic came in the 1950 Senate race in Maryland.

Early that year, McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, delivered a series of speeches in which he claimed that some number of Communists were working in the State Department.

He changed the number from speech to speech. He based his charges on a misreading (probably intentional) of an old House committee report. But he told audiences, including the Senate, that he was basing them on leaks from within the State Department.

When that lie was exposed, the Senate established a special subcommittee to investigate the charges and the senator. Maryland's Millard Tydings headed the subcommittee.

Tydings vs. McCarthy

Tydings was a good choice to take on McCarthy. Though he was a Democrat, he was conservative and non-partisan enough to have been opposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1938 re-election bid. In fact, FDR campaigned unsuccessfully against him in the Maryland Democratic primary that year.

The hearing on the McCarthy charges was one of the first to be televised to a wide audience. It was a good show. The hearing room was filled each session. Due in large part to Tydings' questioning of and arguing with McCarthy, and to his determination to expose the Republicans' recklessness, the subcommittee formally accused McCarthy of perpetrating "a fraud and a hoax" on the Senate and the public.

McCarthy, his staff and his friends in Congress, journalism, business and elsewhere decided to retaliate. This vast right-wing conspiracy included the publisher of the ultra-conservative Washington Times-Herald, Ruth McCormick Miller; her uncle, Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune; and radio commentator Futon Lewis Jr. (the Rush Limbaugh of his day), some Texas oilmen and many others of similarly fevered politics.

Revenge in Maryland

They launched a campaign to discredit Tydings with attacks on his patriotism and his loyalty. They gave significant direct and indirect support to his Republican opponent in the 1950 general election campaign, Baltimore lawyer John Marshall Butler.

Butler was perfect for the conspirators. He was quite conservative and, more important to them, a novice in politics without an organization of his own. The McCarthy conspirators could run things. Ruth McCormick Miller hired a Chicago public relations man to manage the Butler campaign.

In addition to vituperative editorials and slanted reporting in the Times-Herald and numerous radio attacks by Futon Lewis on several Maryland radio stations, McCarthy staffers worked behind the scenes for Butler. Meanwhile, wealthy conservatives from outside the state poured money into the Butler campaign. Working closely with McCarthy, the Washington publisher and her PR man produced a four-page tabloid (with a false statement of sponsorship) smearing Tydings with attacks on his Americanism, and even blaming him for the Korean War.

One item in the tabloid was a photo of Tydings seemingly in a pleasant, intimate conversation with Earl Browder, former head of the Communist Party.

The Butler-McCarthy-Miller forces distributed about 300,000 copies of the tabloid, and it had its intended effect. Butler won the election, a stunning upset of a Senate leader and veteran insider.

The photo was pure fake. It was as deliberately false as the statement of sponsorship and the verbal smears. A photojournalist had taken a picture of Tydings and a picture of Earl Browder, taken at different times and places, and doctored them to get the desired result.

'Despicable'

So outrageous had the Republican campaign been that the Senate Rules Committee held hearings on it in 1951. Its report labeled the campaign on Butler's behalf "despicable."

This led to a resolution calling for McCarthy's expulsion from the Senate. The Senate wouldn't go that far.

But McCarthy was tarred and weakened enough by the whole affair so that in 1954, after further disgraceful behavior, the Senate formally condemned him, effectively ending his influence in the Senate and in the nation.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former Sun editorial writer who writes often about Congress past and present.

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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