Tuesday, August 31, 2021

the last book I ever read (Truman by David McCullough, excerpt twenty)

from Truman by David McCullough:

Until that January, Joseph R. McCarthy, Wisconsin’s forty-one-year-old junior senator, had been casting about for an issue that might lift him from obscurity. All but friendless in the Senate, recently voted the worst member of the Senate in a poll of Washington correspondents, McCarthy appeared to be a hopeless failure. Over dinner one evening at the Colony Restaurant, a Catholic priest, Father Edmund A. Walsh of Georgetown University, suggested he might sound the alarm over Communist infiltration of the government, and McCarthy, who had already made some loud, if unnotable, charges about Communist subversion, seems to have realized at once that he had found what he needed. A month later, in a Lincoln’s Birthday speech in West Virginia, he waved a piece of paper, saying he had “here in my hand” the names of 205 “known Communists” in the State Department. The speech went largely unnoticed, but at Salt Lake City and Reno soon afterward he made essentially the same claim, except the number was cut to fifty-seven, and they were referred to now as “card-carrying” Communists. He made headlines across the country. Back at the Senate he carried on for five hours, claiming to have penetrated “Truman’s iron curtain of secrecy” and come up with eighty-one names.

The charges were wild and unsupported. McCarthy had no names, he produced no new evidence. He was a political brawler, morose, reckless, hard-drinking, a demagogue such as he had not been seen in the Senate since the days of Huey Long, only he had none of Long’s charm or brilliance. The press called him desperate, a loudmouth and a character assassin. His Communist hunt was “a wretched burlesque of the serious and necessary business of loyalty check-ups.” But he was no more bothered by such criticism than by his own inconsistencies, and whatever he said the press printed, his most sensational allegations often getting the biggest headlines. To more and more of the country it seemed that even if he might be wrong in some of his particulars, probably he was onto something, and high time.

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