Senator Joseph McCarthy – Reflections to Today?

A recent copy of The New Yorker included an interesting article. Frankly, at first glance it didn’t seem that compelling: titled “Sloppy Joe” it featured a photo of Joseph McCarthy at some congressional hearing back in the 1950s. McCarthy was a senator from Wisconsin. He started in politics as a Democrat and switched parties to Republican, running as a decorated Marine veteran with the nickname “Tail Gunner Joe.”

Senator Joseph McCarthy

According to the article, he was known in Washington as having no ethical or ideological compass other than Joe McCarthy. He was known as a scofflaw, as he routinely exaggerated his record and was accused of falsely gaining campaign funding and failing to submit accurate tax returns. He broke into the national consciousness with a routine speech (in Wheeling, WV) in which he more of less blurted out an accusation that a piece of paper he was waving included the names of over two hundred communists working in the US State Department. The sheet of paper had no names - the senator had no list. The accusation seemed to generate interest in the crowd however, and he repeated the claim later in Reno Nevada, where the “list” how had fifty-seven names. This was the start of constant headlines for the next four and a half years and Senator McCarthy emerged as a leader in the anti-communist movement at the height of the Cold War.

McCarthy soon became a one-man investigative unit, subpoenaing over five-hundred witnesses for the purpose of ferreting out communists in the government. He would make outrageous charges, almost always with little or no evidence, and then would “surf the aftershocks.” He would throw out another claim or accusation when the news subsided, a master of the news cycle. He knew that reporters had two options: present what he said neutrally, or contest his veracity. What mattered was that he was in control of the conversation. McCarthy had a major media ally: the Hearst newspaper syndicate, which printed and amplified everything he did and said. Key national commentators such as Westbrook Pegler and Walter Winchell sided with him and reached millions of readers daily at a time when newspapers were the way to reach the public.

From the start, McCarthy had prominent critics, but the political establishment was afraid of him and his media allies. He had easy access to money from wealthy Texas oilmen, and used the money to help unseat politicians who crossed him. If McCarthy came out against you, you probably lost in the Republican primary, if not the general election. George Gallup, the pollster, said in 1954 that, “Even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, his (supporters) probably still would go along with him.” His fans liked that he was a bully and that he scandalized the genteel and privileged.

McCarthy almost never proved anything. It was enough for him to make the accusation using his media outreach and public podium. The important thing seemed to be that he said something that was “manifestly preposterous” and got away with it. He lied all the time. He lied even when he didn’t need to lie. When he didn’t have any facts to embellish, he just made them up. He found that if he just kept repeating himself, people would figure that he was “onto something.”

He had the reputation of following the advice of the last person he had talked to and trusted his instincts. He loved chaos and had a much higher tolerance for it than most do, using it to confuse, distract, and disrupt. Like the Don in Mozart’s opera, he never admitted he was wrong. (Note, this cost Mozart’s protagonist eternal damnation.) McCarthy valued loyalty over almost anything else, including ability, and was loyal to those he believed were loyal to him, as long as they were.

The article goes on. At the end, the senator was made accountable for his serious misdeeds. He was censured by the Senate and ignored. He could handle most things, but not being ignored, and descended into alcoholism and died in 1957. He was forty-eight years old and is a tragic figure representing the worst of leadership values.

McCarthy scoffing at charges of his false claims

If the accusations, bullying, political pressure, and media support remind you of      someone else, you’re correct. Of course there are differences. "Someone" is a strict teetotaler, and certainly presents himself with trappings of grandeur. Yet the article correlates many of the techniques of a classic narcissistic demagogue to the present. We shall have to see how this turns out.

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14 Responses

  1. Jim, Interesting article, but with regard to the inference, I believe McCarthy's methods could be ascribed to any number of politicians, in both parties. Generally speaking, most politicians are narcissistic to some degree. In fact I would challenge you to find a line of work that has a higher percentage of narcissists engaged. Leading politicians, of both parties, find ways to use the media, just as McCarthy did. The media doesn't mind being used either, its ratings they are after, not truth. I wonder how many papers McCarthy sold for Hearst? And who knows, perhaps Hearst, also a master of the news cycle, prodded McCarthy to create a little news. Yes I can see McCarthy like tactics all over the political scene, but to ascribe them to one individual is a bit myopic. Enjoyed the piece and didn't realize the circumstances of McCarthy's death. Regards, Mike
    • JK James George
      Mike, for you to comment that " any number" of politicians could be described as using McCarthy's methods is a real stretch. I rest my case that McCarthy was a once in a generation narcissist and evil doer. It's now been a generation. Hmmm.
      • Trump is not holding a blank piece of paper as McCarthy was. Like him or not, his accomplishments are many, lowest unemployment in decades, favorable trade deals (Not just China), putting American industry on a par with the rest of the world on taxes so jobs can return to the US, just to name a few. These are significant accomplishments unappreciated by the socialist leaning left and things that previous administrations of both parties failed to achieve. The comparison to McCarthy is thin at best. I would add, there are no "once in a generation" narcissists. Narcissism is a trait common to many politicians, one needs only to open their eyes and use of the media to promote untruth is the rule rather than the exception these days.
        • JK James George
          Mike, Granted there are policy matters and some are positive. There are plenty of policy changes for which I am in disagreement. That is fair. However Trump's proclivity to exaggerate and flat-out lie over and over along with his petty and cutting remarks at anyone who disagrees with him are enough to disqualify him in my opinion. I just see him as an extreme narcissist. My PCP, who is a Libertarian and certainly not a leftie, says that Trump is one of the most classic cases he has seen; right out of the DSM. We need a change, a moral and non-chaotic administration. Insiders in Trump's administration have, for a significant part, now been convicted and serving time, or pandering for a pardon that is being floated. Either that or having disavowed Trump. This man will go down in history as a "game changer," and not for the better. He illustrates, at least to me, as how easy it would be for an unprincipled strongman to take over a political party. The Republicans may or may not survive this. Yes, parties do change, and the Dems are moving left, but still the GOP has signed on, for the most part, as accomplices to a seriously defective President. JKG
  2. Nice blog Jim. You chose a "much nicer" person (McCarthy) than I would have chosen to compare vs "someone" :) Joe would have likely had his own t.v. reality show back then if technology was capable. "Someone" has also perfected the art of "deflection", a typical characteristic of a 1st grader...
  3. JK James George
    From Anon-1: Good one. Very interesting. Thanks, Jim.
  4. JK James George
    From Anon-2: It's amazing to me how you can make such a ridiculous insignificant comparison with your party of ultra - liberal moron politicians allowing this country to be destroyed. There are many issues you comment on like the 5 year old white child being shot in the head at point blank range and no outrage from the democrats and their liberal networks. How can you support this party?
    • Following in the footsteps of "Someone" this comment makes use of McCarthy-link tactics by using foolish names vs. finding fault with the logic or mistakes in facts. "Someone" no longer (if he ever did) care about facts. Did you see him on Fox News Sunday trying to justify what a great job he has done in fighting COVID-19? When one has to cut down (using lies or belittlement) everyone else to build himself up, that should make us question his motives and his "facts." The comment above used McCarthy's (and "Someone"'s) example of diversion, rather than addressing the facts. Many of us who had no choice in 2016, and don't see much of one in 2018, wish there were able leaders willing to stand up to the bullies and an electorate who could appreciate those leaders. Instead, too many on "Someone"'s side prefer hate, name-calling, and ignorance. Many have died needlessly of COVID-19 ("Not really serious and it will be gone by summer.") complications. That is the legacy of our 2016 votes. If only there were a much better alternative! We really, really don't need four more years of ignorance and self-involvement. What will "Someone" do when he can no longer run for President, his main goal in life since his embarrassment at the Washington Correspondents Dinner in 2011? Maybe, if elected, we'll get lucky and he will govern, rather than run for re-election. Has anyone told him about the 22nd Amendment?
  5. JK James George
    From Anon-3: Very importantly left out is this Pre Trump clone , (McCarthy), had Roy Cohn as an attorney. Roy personally tutored McCarthy AND Donald Trump on the art of Projection. "Whatever the issue, if they hit you with it, double up and hit them twice as hard, lie or not, its irrelevant, just scream back". As an example of this currently transcendent hypocrisy, almost too perfect as to seem fiction, after a lifetime of railing against and ruining lives of gay folks in government and movie industry, Roy despicably died of AIDS. There was only one way to do that. (He even talked Barbara Walters into "posing " as his honey as a cover for his appetite for nubile men) We are there again and the sheep are eating it up. A nation of sheep.
  6. JK James George
    From Anon-4: I think the common tie to Roy Cohn might be in this somewhere... I don’t know if Cohn learned from McCarthy or the reverse, but clearly Roy influenced Trump...
  7. JK James George
    From Anon-5: Thanks for the article. Wow! The comparison is so disturbing. Let's hope we will see big changes come November
  8. JK James George
    From Anon-6: I enjoyed reading your piece about Joseph McCarthy. And yes, the parallels with Trump are chilling. Thanks for bring this bit of history to the fore at such a critical time.
  9. Of course, you only follow the news from the main stream media which gives you the Liberal slanted view. Like your comment on peaceful protests, it shows you do not view conservative news sources that show what is going on in Portland for 81 nights. We are not all gullible and believe smooth word Smiths.
  10. JK James George
    From Anon-7: PBS has a documentary on McCarthy in the American Experience series. I found it eerily matched what's going on today and highly recommend it. Probably available for streaming? Of particular note, as I'm sure you know, after McCarthy flamed out his "man behind the scenes" Roy Cohn ended up as Trump's mentor. Hopefully we're at another moment of national reckoning.

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