McCarthy, after 42 years: an enemy to his own cause

ON BOOKS

June 13, 1999|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Tens of millions of Americans and other countless millions around the world know something of Joseph McCarthy and, thus knowing, think they understand the man and what is meant by "McCarthyism."

Few if any subjects or humans in the second half of the 20th century have carried a heavier emotional charge. He was a Republican, an immensely popular and historically influential U.S. senator from Wisconsin from 1947 till his death at the age of 49 in 1957.

Nothing will -- or should -- forever cool the passions or still the debates about him. But I have just read a book that knowledgeably and scrupulously rises to the challenge of making him comprehensible. It is "The Redhunter: A novel based on the life of Senator Joe McCarthy" by William F. Buckley Jr. (Little, Brown, 421 pages. $25).

"McCarthyism" has become a word much like "cancer" or "pollution" -- indisputedly vile but so broad as to be clinically meaningless. More muddled as memories dim, today it often seems to mean any attitude or policy the user detests without quite knowing why.

There have been earnest efforts, but few historians or histories have successfully dealt with the complexity of the man and the era. Few writers, if any, are better equipped to do so that than Buckley, who, as the intellectual dean and moral conscience of American conservatism since the 1950s, knew McCarthy, his associates and his adversaries, and is acutely aware of the consequences.

(Before proceeding, You should know that Buckley has been a friend of mine for many years. I believe I am fair, but reader beware.)

The book begins with anecdotal vignettes of family members, associates and colleagues in McCarthy's youth in a dirt poor farm family. These people influenced or were affected by McCarthy. They span two generations and more.

These early events establish the young McCarthy as ambitious, willful, self-serving, drivingly energetic and far from straightforward or reliable. He was a high risk-taker who managed to recover from sometimes disastrous failures -- as a farmer, a speculator, a card player. He dropped out of school, then finally completed college and law school. He was not likable, but often was irresistible, becoming a keenly effective politician, a judge and then a U.S. senator.

But the bulk of the book is the historic drama of investigations, charges and countercharges, congressional hearings, intrigues. It ends with a funeral. McCarthy died a broken, besotted failure so wracked by emotional collapse and alcoholism to be barely able to appear in the Senate.

There is a fundamental problem of using the novel form to examine history. If the reader is familiar with the historic facts, the narrative stands in peril of preachiness, contrivance or both. Buckley, a celebrated story teller, manages to meld the history smoothly with a working action narrative.

From beginning to end, the book's narrative voice makes almost no attempt to enter McCarthy's consciousness. (There is one fleeting exception, as he approaches a surreptitious meeting with J. Edgar Hoover: "Was this fear? Odd. He hadn't had this kind of apprehension since the day he looked up across the boxing ring at Marquette at the huge black opponent his coach had decided to humble him with.")

Throughout his book, Buckley carefully describes McCarthy's behavior, what he and other actual, historic characters said and the impact of his actions on others. The fictional device Buckley uses is mainly present in two leading, nonhistoric, characters: Alex Herrendon, a retired British diplomat, and Harry Bontecou, an American who is a generation younger, who served as a staff aide to McCarthy until the senator began to unravel.

All the words and facts attributed to historic characters are from confirmed records. Herrendon's and Bontecou's roles are essentially narrative mirrors or prisms, through whom to relate the drama and raise questions and declare reflections.

Were there communists working within and against the United States government? Yes. The world now knows that Soviet espionage in America was immense, and immensely successful -- yielding, among much else, virtually all of Russia's nuclear and thermonuclear weapons capacity. That spying was -- now indisputably -- a threat to the survival of the United States constitutional government and the potential of freedom.

But that was not the issue of McCarthy's career -- if "career" is the proper word -- then or now. The issue was McCarthy's pursuit of people who were sympathetic, however naively, to the Soviet cause and to world socialism -- often sympathetic only to friends who were naive sympathizers.

That seems elusive today. Making it comprehensible is the novel's main thread -- best stated by Herrendon: "The great question raised by the twentieth century: the capacity of totalitarian movements to capture the loyalty not only of multitudes of people, but of intellectuals."

And, as he says, half way through the book: "It is vulgar to forget, which so many people in fact do, the high appeal that Communism had for so many."

Roy Cohn became McCarthy's dominant staff counsel just after Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952. Cohn's virtually maniacal zeal further inflamed McCarthy's. McCarthy's judgment deteriorated into ever grosser and more vicious vindictiveness. By the time the book and McCarthy's career are coming to conclusions, McCarthy has collapsed, a virtual pawn of Cohn.

The question is: "Whether this 'bad character' of Joe McCarthy had as an enduring result the discrediting of anti-Communist activity." Buckley, firm in his conservatism and the conviction that Communism genuinely threatened civilization itself, makes his answer very clear. McCarthy was no good guy -- and no help.

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