Echoes of Joe McCarthy in Donald Trump's Rise

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He was a Democrat turned Republican who made alarming accusations and liked the sound of his own voice. He used statistics that could not be verified or were demonstrably wrong.  He frightened the establishment, which was slow to combat him, for he had unlimited resources and bullied his critics. He perplexed the press, making so many charges that reporters could not keep up with them.  He was at first dismissed as a clown but he built a grassroots following among people fed up with conventional politics.

He wasn’t Donald Trump but Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, who for nearly five years in the early 1950s struck fear into official Washington with accusations that communists had infiltrated the national government.

McCarthy smeared two of President Harry Truman’s cabinet officers — Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Secretary of Defense George Marshall, a distinguished World War II general — and accused scores of civil servants, several of whom retired, of being “inclined to communism.” Less remembered is that he ruined the careers of others by implying that they were homosexuals. “McCarthyism,” a word coined by Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Block, was defined as "the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism."

McCarthy’s rise was abetted, as Trump’s has been, by press coverage that took outrageous claims at face value. In those days of television’s infancy, Americans depended for their news on newspapers; 85 percent of the national news came from wire services.  They were ill-equipped to deal with McCarthy, whose first headline-grabbing foray occurred on a brisk February day in 1950 in Wheeling, W.Va., when he told a Republican women’s club: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 [State Department employees] that were known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”

Lionel Trilling would famously say that the press missed its opportunity from the get-go because McCarthy held nothing in his hand when he gave this speech. But this isn’t certain — McCarthy would later say that he flourished “an old laundry list” — nor is it even known if any reporter actually heard the speech. The story first appeared in the Wheeling Record and was sent out by the Associated Press for distribution. The local reporter who wrote it acknowledged years later that he had written his story not from what was said at the luncheon but from a prepared text.

In any case, McCarthy was off and running. In the next few weeks, the number of alleged Communists in high places would vary from 57 — the number McCarthy used when his Wheeling speech was printed in the Congressional Record — to 81 and finally to 10.  Not one of the people whom McCarthy named was ever proved to be a member of the Communist Party, but he created a climate of fear in Washington that spread throughout the land.  The real Communists in the Soviet Union appear to have been delighted by the uproar; Truman called McCarthy “the best asset” the Soviets had in the United States.

Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, his successor in the White House, despised McCarthy but for a time seemed powerless to stop him. He was editorially criticized in a few newspapers, including The Washington Post and the Washington Star, but this only seemed to enhance McCarthy’s popularity.

''Because McCarthy was a true innovator, because he lied with unprecedented boldness ... even those newspapers that were willing to expose him found that they lacked the technical resources,'' wrote journalist Richard Rovere in a 1959 book.

Edwin R. Bayley, a Wisconsin political reporter during the McCarthy era, contended in a 1982 book, “Joe McCarthy and the Press,” that a “more alert, flexible, and courageous press” might have curtailed McCarthy. He found that wire services highlighted fresh charges and buried rebuttals in the interest of having “new leads” and that careless headlines sometimes converted allegations into facts. 

But the larger problem, pointed out by journalist Douglass Cater and by Bayley, was that McCarthy made mincemeat of the prevailing standard of “objective journalism.” Most stories on McCarthy were balanced, but the Wisconsin senator knew that a fresh charge would always get more attention than someone’s criticism of his tactics.

It is tempting to say this wouldn’t happen today, when objective journalism is defined more broadly than in the 1950s.  But consider the McCarthy-like recent trajectory of Trump, who began his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by deploring illegal immigration and a supposed influx of rapists from Mexico.

When Sen. John McCain criticized this assertion, Trump changed the subject by alleging that the Arizona senator, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, was not a war hero.  When Sen. Lindsay Graham came to McCain’s defense, Trump responded by giving out Graham’s cellphone number.  The media covered this with a straight face. It was so preoccupied with this sideshow that no one paid much attention to Trump’s casual claim that there are 30 million illegal immigrants in the United States.  The accurate figure, according to Pew Research, is between 11 million and 12 million.

As was the case with McCarthy, media outlets are in disagreement about how to deal with Trump. The Huffington Post had decided that Trump is a celebrity who should be covered as entertainment, like the Kardashians. Apart from the fact that more people read about entertainment than politics, such decisions do not impact Trump’s campaign. Recent polls show him either leading or running a close second in the early voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa and in other states as well.

There are differences between Trump and McCarthy, of course, the biggest being that McCarthy was a U.S. senator and the subcommittee he headed had subpoena powers. But many of McCarthy’s smears originated not in the Senate chambers but on the political hustings.  McCarthy never ran for president, but he campaigned hard for GOP candidates in the 1952 election, when Eisenhower was elected and the Republicans gained a majority in the Senate.  Most of the candidates for whom McCarthy stumped were victorious.

I once met McCarthy.  The occasion was Boys Nation in 1950; I was one of two boys from Nevada, and Sen. Robert Taft, known as “Mr. Republican,” introduced us to McCarthy with some comment that he had been in the news.  I remember that McCarthy did not look us in the eyes and that his handshake was limp—bad signs in those days. McCarthy talked to us for a few moments about football, apparently realizing this was more interesting to 17-year-old boys than communism. I don’t remember anything in particular that he said; my thrills at Boys Nation came from meeting President Truman, Sen. Taft and a talkative young congressman named Hubert Humphrey.

McCarthy was eventually derailed by the new medium of the time: television. His downfall came at what were known as the Army-McCarthy hearings in which a Senate committee was investigating charges about supposed Communist infiltration of the Army.  Those of us who saw those hearings remember McCarthy’s interruptions, often saying “point of order” in his nasal voice.  I knew McCarthy was in trouble when a friend of mine started imitating him to laughter from the rest of us.

The denouement of those hearings is well known.  On June 9, 1954, McCarthy suggested that a young lawyer who worked for the firm of Joseph Welch, the Army’s chief counsel, was a Communist.  Welch replied to McCarthy: “Have you no decency, sir, at long last?”   McCarthy never recovered from this question. Six months later he was censured by the Senate. Three years later he was dead.

Welch’s question would have been a good one for a reporter to put to Trump after he smeared McCain.  But I’m not sure it would have fazed him.

Lou Cannon worked 26 years for The Washington Post and is the author of “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”

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