Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Fear as the Path to Power: Haynes Johnson on Joe McCarthy

Be on the lookout for an important new book by journalist Haynes Johnson. It's called The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, and it's due to be published by Harcourt in October (which means books in stores in September). I just finished reading an advance copy, and it's absolutely engrossing.

The bulk of the book is devoted to an account of the life and career of Joe McCarthy. As far as I can tell, most of the story has been recounted in previous biographies (including those by Richard Rovere, Thomas C. Reeves, and Arthur Herman), but although the general outline was familiar to me via cultural osmosis, many of the details were not. A few of the many fascinating, appalling tidbits:

* According to McCarthy's lifelong best friend, judge Urban Van Susteren (yes, Greta's father!), McCarthy "never read books," with one exception: Hitler's Mein Kampf, which he regarded as a handbook of political tactics. "Joe was fascinated by the strategy, that's all," said Van Susteren.

* When not engaged in character assassination for political gain, McCarthy was obsessed with gambling, speculating in risky securities, and other questionable money-making schemes. As a senator, he accepted large fees to speak before conventions of real estate and housing speculators. His host at one such meeting recalled McCarthy's behavior before his speech:

It was a disgusting sight to see this great public servant down on his hands and knees [to shoot craps], reeking of whiskey, and shouting, "Come on babies, Papa needs a new pair of shos." He did stop long enough between rolls to look over the gals his aides brought to him: on some, he turned thumbs down, but if one suited his fancy, he'd say, "That's the baby, I'll take care of her just as soon as I break you guys."

* At a dinner dance honoring a Republican senator in 1950, McCarthy mercilessly taunted and bullied columnist Drew Pearson (who had dared to criticize him in print), finally kicking him in the groin--and later boasted about it to supporters and friendly journalists, who congratulated him.

Johnson makes clear that McCarthy was able to amass a frightening degree of power (despite starting out as an obscure, intellectually unimpressive first-term senator from Wisconsin) because his fellow Republicans found it politically convenient to stifle their disgust over his vicious, dishonest tactics:

Republican moderates, including distinguished figures such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Robert A. Taft, personally had little respect for McCarthy. But they kept their silence. Everyone understood that Communists in government would be a major issue in the midterm elections that fall [1950]. McCarthy, respectable or not, could be the key to Republican victory.

By traveling the country trumpeting his phony charges that the Democrats were shielding Communists in the State Department, McCarthy helped his party gain seats in Congress. For the sake of those seats, Republicans cravenly sucked up to McCarthy and his followers. Even President Eisenhower, whose enormous popularity as a war hero would probably have shielded him had he chosen to confront McCarthy, bent over backward to avoid offending his growing right-wing army. It took years of over-reaching by McCarthy--and his near psychological breakdown during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings--before a significant number of Republican politicians were brave enough to challenge him in public.

All of this horrific history is reasonably familiar, though important enough to bear retelling. Johnson's special contribution in this book is twofold. First, he puts the phenomenon of McCarthyism into its historical context by linking and comparing it to previous periods of national hysteria: the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams; the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920; and the Depression-era crackdown on suspected Communists led by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Second, and more important, in the last 70 pages of the book, Johnson carefully traces the links between McCarthyism and the current use of fear-mongering, repression, and phony accusations of disloyalty by conservative Republicans, for whom the "war on terror" today plays the same political role that the battle against "Communist subversion" played for the Republicans of the early 1950s. A couple of choice excerpts:

Out of McCarthyism came the modern conservative movement and the former liberals turned neocons who exercise their greatest intellectual and political influence today--as seen in the major role they played in making the Bush administration's case for preemptive war against Iraq. McCarthyism was a major factor in the rise of the radical Right and the polarization that plagues American life, pitting group against group and region against region, sowing cynicism and distrust, and manipulating public opinion through fear and smear. The so-called culture wars that afflict our public discourse are another of McCarthy's legacies, as is the continuing demonization of liberals, the national press, and others whose values are not those of "real" and "patriotic" and church-going Americans.

. . .

The real story of the moral values factor in [the] 2004 [election] was not that Americans were suddenly shocked into political action by the questions of whether abortion or same-sex marriage should be legal. They were troubled by something more elusive, and powerful: fear of threats external and internal, real and imagined; threats from terrorists lurking in the shadows; threats from Americans practicing "immoral" acts around them; threats from Americans deemed unpatriotic and irreligious; threats to the accepted "American way of life" by "un-American" elements of society. . .

Joe McCarthy understood this well, and played upon the same kinds of fears. With his witch hunts, his hounding of homosexuals, his sowing of suspicions of enemies within, his appeals to Christian conservatives by warning of godless Communism and atheistic beliefs, his targeting of the aliens among us, his attacks on thos who didn't conform to the accepted view of what was "normal," he carved a divisive path that others could follow, and did.

It's no coincidence that some of today's sleaziest political operatives (such as Ann Coulter) have made it their mission to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy. They recognize the straight line that runs from McCarthy to Goldwater to Nixon to Reagan to Bush, which makes recasting McCarthyism in a noble, heroic light necessary to their program of creating a new, fake, right-wing history of the twentieth century.

In setting the record straight by reminding us of the evil legacy of McCarthy, Haynes Johnson does today's Americans a real service.
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