Donald Trump is hardly the first American politician who parlayed trifling credentials into massive popularity while terrifying his faint-hearted critics into embarrassed silence, by demonizing the institutions of democracy and the Washington establishment, lying promiscuously, destroying the lives of public servants, manipulating a complicit media, turning angry citizens against one another, and using other dark arts perfected under the tutelage of Roy Marcus Cohn.
Without quite saying so, McCarthy, a two-hour “American Experience” episode that airs Monday night on PBS stations, amplifies the eerie echoes of Joe McCarthy in the techniques and triumphs of our 45th president.
The film covers events that occurred more than six decades ago, yet is remarkably—if accidentally—relevant today. (It has been in the works, on and off, since 2003.) Trump is facing an impeachment trial in the Senate over his alleged abuse of presidential power—the sort of potential comeuppance that McCarthy himself experienced.
McCarthy’s misconduct and out-of-control drinking eventually caught up with him, and after six weeks of televised hearings into his own abuse of power—“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Army counsel Joseph Welch famously demanded—Senate colleagues voted to censure him, essentially ending his career. He died a few years later, on May 2, 1957, of cirrhosis of the liver, at the age of 48.
Trump, it turns out, has more than a little in common with the junior senator from Wisconsin who rose to prominence by stoking the public’s fear of (largely negligible) Soviet Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. And while he is nowhere mentioned in this documentary written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Sharon Grimberg, it’s impossible not to conflate Trump’s modus operandi with the late senator’s, especially McCarthy’s cozily symbiotic relationship with the national press corps.
“There was a media benefit to McCarthy existing,” New Yorker writer and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor Jelani Cobb says in the film. “Editors knew that if you put a quote from Joe McCarthy on a headline above the fold on the front page of a newspaper, people were going to pick that newspaper up, that McCarthy was good copy. There was a kind of hyperbolic, sensational quality to McCarthy’s rhetoric that was very marketable. It sold papers.”
New York University history professor Timothy Naftali notes that McCarthy exploited the fact that “the American media wants to be objective. That meant that if you were an elected official, you’d get press regardless of what you said. McCarthy understood this. McCarthy was willing to assert things that he knew weren’t true, and he did it with aplomb.”
Whitaker Chambers and William F. Buckley Jr. biographer Sam Tanenhaus recounts that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was aghast at McCarthy’s rise. The hero-general of World War II, who shared McCarthy’s Republican Party affiliation but little else, “blamed the press for much of McCarthy’s popularity,” Tanenhaus says. “He didn’t understand why newspapers and magazines kept reporting all of McCarthy’s allegations.”
McCarthy, whose first Senate term was so lackluster and ineffective that he feared he wouldn’t be reelected in 1952, had been a virtual nonentity in Republican politics—so low on the totem pole that for the traditional Lincoln Day dinner speeches, the party poobahs dispatched him to the backwater of the Wheeling, West Virginia, Women’s Republican Club.
In desperation, and without a stitch of evidence, McCarthy lied to the good women of the West Virginia GOP that there were 205 Communists operating undercover within the U.S. State Department (a number that morphed wildly over ensuing weeks as McCarthy, a former local Democratic judge who had zero history of concern about Commies, kept changing his threat assessments).
Much to everyone’s surprise—and thanks to simmering Cold War anxiety and an Associated Press reporter in attendance—McCarthy’s Wheeling speech captured lurid headlines and dominated the news cycle for days, as the country clamored to know who and how many traitors were subverting our national security on behalf of Stalin.
“He called back to his office and he asked his secretary, ‘Are we getting any publicity?’” Donald Ritchie, the Senate’s former official historian, recalls. “And she said, ‘We’re getting a lot of publicity!’ His secretary described him as being almost intoxicated with the joy and excitement of getting this much attention for a story.”
“He realized he had a thing going,” Tanenhaus says. “He found his shtick at last.” (McCarthy includes footage of an imperially slim Bill Buckley, fresh out of Yale, walking across an airport tarmac beside the Wisconsin senator amid a ravenous pack of newshounds.)
Cobb, meanwhile, notes that for the press corps, chasing McCarthy’s multiplying fabrications was “a sheer exercise in fatigue.”
Any of this sound familiar?
It’s by no means a new idea, of course, that Trump and McCarthy are historical soulmates, especially because both men enjoyed a close association—indeed, a mentor/protégé relationship—with the precocious Cohn.
Conspicuously proud of his reptilian lack of scruples, Cohn was Trump’s lawyer and political and press adviser as the future president navigated the dodgy Manhattan real estate scene in the 1970s and 1980s; as a former federal prosecutor in his already infamous midtwenties (when he boasted that he won the death penalty for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg), Cohn served as Chairman McCarthy’s chief counsel in 1953 and 1954 on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Cohn’s abuse of his position to intimidate the Pentagon on behalf of his close friend (and suspected lover) G. David Schine—an Army draftee and heir to a hotel-chain fortune who received preferential treatment—ultimately led to his boss’s destruction.
The film offers a fleeting image of Cohn’s vanquished rival for the top counsel’s job, a shockingly young Bobby Kennedy, fiddling with his glasses as he sits behind Democratic Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri; Bobby, initially on McCarthy’s team owing to the influence of the family patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, had quit the subcommittee but returned as a Democratic staffer after McCarthy passed him over in favor of Cohn.
McCarthy’s mighty perch on the permanent investigations subcommittee allowed him to inflict maximum damage on the body politic, giving him unchecked power to subpoena government officials, Hollywood screenwriters, authors (notably Howard Fast, a heroically uncooperative witness and grandfather of Daily Beast editor-at-large Molly Jong-Fast), journalists, and ordinary citizens. The senator put them under oath in front of cameras and badgered them about their supposed Commie ties and those of their acquaintances, threatening contempt of Congress—and possible jail terms—when they didn’t acquiesce.
Fast, who ultimately broke with the Communist Party but had refused to spill to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, had already done three months in federal prison—and was blacklisted by the publishing industry—by the time he got into a shouting match with McCarthy on Feb. 18, 1953 (a dramatic encounter included in the PBS documentary).
Filmmaker Grimberg managed to interview a second unwilling witness, former Princeton University psychology department chairman Leon Kamin, shortly before his death, at 89, in December 2017. As a Harvard graduate student in 1954, Kamin was hauled before McCarthy’s subcommittee but refused to rat out his friends from his brief membership in the Young Communist League—which resulted in a contempt of Congress conviction and virtual banishment from American academe. For the next decade, he was forced to leave the United States to pursue employment in Canada.
“It’s an interesting thing—in some ways he was quite a charming guy,” Kamin says, recalling a brief encounter with McCarthy during his contempt trial in Boston. “Without my doing anything, he throws his arm around me and says ‘Hi, Leo!’ I was kind of taken aback because this guy is trying to crucify me. I must confess that I sank to obscenity—and he looked hurt. He really looked hurt. What have I got against him? Gee whiz! He’s got nothing personal against me.”
Kamin recalls that he simply wouldn’t answer McCarthy’s questions at the subcommittee hearing; nor would he take the Fifth Amendment, a virtual career-ender amid the Cold War hysteria. Indeed, this was a moment when the Soviet Empire had absorbed Eastern Europe, Mao Zedong had taken over “Red China,” Stalinist North Korea had invaded its southern neighbor, and a high State Department official, Alger Hiss, was serving prison time for perjury after Whitaker Chambers had unmasked him as a Soviet spy.
“I knew I would certainly not say anything endangering the wellbeing of other people who were members of the Party at the same time that I was,” Kamin recalls. “When I look back at it, I wasn’t protecting them. I was protecting my own sense of dignity, I guess.”
When a frustrated McCarthy threatened him with criminal exposure, “I knew that was nonsense,” Kamin says. “I was not gonna get 20 years in jail. I might have to go for a year. Two years? I don’t know. And that was just the risk one had to take.”
The defiance of Kamin, Fast, and other McCarthy detractors, at the height of the senator’s power, was distinctly at odds with the timid distaste expressed by his fellow Republicans behind closed doors. It’s difficult not to see parallels to today’s situation.
“There’s just too much political capital at stake for them to desert McCarthy,” says NYU history professor David Oshinsky, the author of A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, the definitive biography that serves as a roadmap for the documentary. “Public opinion polls show this gigantic upsurge in support of McCarthy’s charges. So the Republicans are saying to themselves, ‘We have a complete loose cannon with virtually no information at the head of our army at this moment. We’re riding along with him because we basically have no alternative.’”
Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith—who in 1950, four months after Wheeling, issued her legendary “declaration of conscience” against McCarthy’s misuse of the Senate as “a forum of hate and character assassination”—was all but alone in rejecting his demagoguery. (Trump’s adversaries have so far waited in vain for the person who holds Smith’s Senate seat, so-called “moderate Republican” Susan Collins, to take a similarly principled stand.)
McCarthy considers all the high and low points of its well-known subject’s life and times: his modest upbringing on his parents’ chicken and dairy farm outside Appleton, Wisconsin; his career as a college boxing coach at Marquette University; and his reputation as a drunken brawler, enhanced when he beat the crap out of Washington columnist Drew Pearson, a severe critic, at the Sulgrave Club (a rumble that was broken up by Richard Nixon).
The film—which makes use of black and white archival footage punctuated by illuminating expert commentary—also covers McCarthy’s World War II service as a tail gunner in the Pacific (where, by his own account, he spent many more bullets on coconut trees than on Japanese soldiers); and, of course, the Army-McCarthy hearings that prompted his ultimate downfall—a result that was largely orchestrated behind the scenes, the film argues, by the Eisenhower White House, which gave the green light to Edward R. Murrow to devastate McCarthy on CBS and supported Ike’s cherished Army in its war against the senator’s charges of Communist infiltration.
Still, even on his harrowing ride down the escalator of power and fame, McCarthy remained beloved among a hard-core base of supporters.
“There were some people who were never going to part with the idea that Joseph McCarthy represented maybe some sort of truculent patriotism,” Cobb says, even as the Senate overwhelmingly voted to censure their colleague and then avoided him. McCarthy was deeply wounded when Ike snubbed him and didn’t invite him to the White House cocktail party for members of Congress.
“People just stopped paying much attention to him, to be very frank about it,” recounts former International News Service reporter Alvin A. Spivak, one of McCarthy’s favorites who had sipped bourbon after-hours in the senator’s office.
“Once McCarthy was censured, the press began to ignore him,” Oshinsky says. “The gravy train was over. The conveyor belt was gone. Nobody cared.”