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Remembering McCarthy

updated 12/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1984 01:00AM

Roy Cohn is mad. He is screaming into his telephone at a client who is late paying a bill that Cohn had sent for his legal services. Then, after one parting expletive, he slams down the phone and goes back to telling an interviewer about his old boss, Joe McCarthy, the legendary Commie hunter, and lambasting Joe's foes with the same vigor and vitriol that made him McCarthy's brash boy wonder three decades ago. "You can't get people on the other side to tell the truth," he says indignantly. "How can you get both sides of the story when there are two books on our side and 700 on the other side? Any book on our side gets destroyed, and any book on their side gets praised in the New York Times Book Review." As for the historians' view of McCarthy as a demagogue, Cohn scoffs at it. "McCarthy was a guy yelling his lungs out against Communism," he says. "And the events of the last 25 years have totally vindicated his basic premise."

Others who knew Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy disagree. "He was absolutely destructive, an absolutely ruthless person," says John G. Adams, who served as the Army counselor and witness in its famous televised bout with McCarthy. "He was a laughing executioner." Sam Ervin, the homey Carolinian who served in the Senate with McCarthy, puts it more judiciously: "He loved publicity and power and wasn't willing to do the work and put up with the drudgery that goes with it." Owen Lattimore, perhaps McCarthy's most famous victim, dismisses his old nemesis in one scornful phrase: "A low-grade politician on the make."

It was 30 years ago this month that his fellow senators formally condemned him, yet obviously Joe McCarthy is still a controversial figure. On Dec. 2, 1954 the Senate voted 67-22 to censure McCarthy for misconduct. That historic vote (the last one had been 25 years earlier and the only once since was the 1967 censure of Sen. Thomas Dodd of Conn.) scuttled McCarthy's strange and stormy career. But it is a testament to McCarthy's power and the depth of the wounds he inflicted that many of his targets still avoid public attention. "This has been quiet for a long time, and my wife and I don't want any publicity," says one, and the wife of another cries, "Even if you think my husband was wronged, I don't want to see it on the pages of any magazine." G. Joseph Minetti, the second husband of McCarthy's widow, Jean, even claims that he and his late wife "never discussed" the subject.

Such avoidance reactions are chillingly familiar to those who witnessed "Tail Gunner Joe" in his heyday. At the peak of his power Joe McCarthy utterly reversed the age-old presumption of innocence with insinuation and unsubstantiated claims. Just by saying so, he convinced most Americans that their government was riddled with Reds bent on its destruction. And though he personally claimed only a few victims, the mood of fear that he played on fueled the House Un-American Activities Committee during years of hearings in which hundreds of careers were ruined, untold (and unacknowledged) blacklists were forged and the term "witch-hunt" was reincarnated in fearsome 20th-century garb.

Joe McCarthy's rise from obscurity to frightening power occurred almost overnight. A former Wisconsin farm-boy, country judge and Marine officer, McCarthy was elected to the Senate in the Republican landslide of 1946. He was, by all accounts, a lackluster legislator, known mainly as a genial drinking companion and a soft touch for the real estate lobby, and at the start of 1950 he was still about as unknown as a senator can be. Then, on Feb. 9, 1950 in Wheeling, W. Va., he burst into prominence with a few now-famous words: "I have here in my hand a list of 205, a list of names made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, who are nevertheless still working and shaping policy in the State Department."

It was an astonishing charge, and it got more astonishing as the numbers kept changing. The next day, in Denver, it was "207 bad risks" in the State Department. That night, in Salt Lake City, it was "57 card-carrying Communists." Ten days later, in the Senate, it became a list of "81 loyalty risks." Actually, there was no such list. All he had were outdated files on government employees who had been investigated for offenses ranging from alleged communist and fascist sympathies to drinking problems and homosexuality. Not one was a "card-carrying Communist" in the State Department. Yet the charade worked: Polls showed that half the American public applauded while only 29 percent disapproved.

In 1950 Americans had good reason to fear Communism. The Soviet Union, which had recently colonized Eastern Europe, now possessed the atomic bomb, and Mao's army had seized power in China. At the same time the public learned that a ring of spies had ferreted out atomic secrets for the Soviets, and Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, was convicted of perjury in connection with charges that he had passed secret documents to communist couriers. Suddenly, America's hard-won power seemed to be ebbing and Americans asked themselves: What happened? Joe McCarthy provided a simple answer. The country, he said, had been sold out by traitors and dupes within the government—by "Commies and queers" and "egg-sucking liberals" and the "Commiecrat Party."

He occasionally provided more specific scapegoats. In the spring of 1950 McCarthy announced with a flourish that he had uncovered "the top Soviet espionage agent," a man who was "Alger Hiss' boss in the espionage ring in the State Department." This high "spy" turned out to be Owen Lattimore, a bespectacled Johns Hopkins University professor and East Asia expert. Lattimore called the charge "pure moonshine," and he was right. The professor's "crime" consisted of predicting the fall of the Chinese Nationalist government and urging the U.S. to deal rationally with Mao. Nonetheless, Lattimore was eased out of Johns Hopkins. "Their way of evading the issue was abolishing my department—don't fire the professor, get rid of the department," Lattimore, now 84 and living in England, recalls, his voice betraying lingering bitterness. "I was put on leave—with pay but with no job—for five years before being allowed to return as a lecturer in history." (Johns Hopkins claims it closed the department for purely administrative reasons.)

McCarthy also proved adept at taking away the jobs of politicians who dared to oppose him. Millard Tydings, a veteran Senator from Maryland, issued a report terming his colleague's charges "a fraud and a hoax." McCarthy was irate. Campaigning for Tydings' opponent, he accused the Senator of "protecting Communists." Joe's staff then combined two photographs—one of Tydings and one of communist leader Earl Browder—making it appear that the two were bosom buddies. It worked: Tydings lost. From then on, few congressmen cared to risk Joe's wrath.

Despite his fondness for hitting below the belt, McCarthy could be charming in private. James Juliana, who was a staff member of McCarthy's Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, recalls, "Outside the hearing room, you could not have found a more loving, interesting man." Roy Cohn agrees. "He was a very warm man, and he had a great sense of humor," he says, "but television made him look sinister, which he wasn't."

As Cohn suggests, TV, an infant medium whose power few recognized, helped to topple Joe. McCarthy manipulated the print like a virtuoso, but television exposed his dark side. In his now-famous 1954 See It Now, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow showed McCarthy at his most brutal—gleefully terrorizing witnesses, chuckling snidely as he smeared Adlai Stevenson and snickering at Dwight Eisenhower. But that half-hour broadcast was a mere flesh wound; the Army-McCarthy hearings—36 days of live television exposure that the nation watched tensely—left McCarthy mortally injured.

McCarthy brought on the battle by accusing the Army of coddling Communists, particularly a draftee dentist named Irving Peress, who had refused to answer questions about his alleged radical background. The service responded by charging McCarthy and Cohn with threatening to "wreck the Army" unless they got special privileges for Pvt. G. David Schine, a former McCarthy aide who had been drafted. McCarthy counterattacked furiously, accusing the Army of trying to stop his "exposure of Communists" by holding Schine "hostage."

On April 22, 1954, when a Senate committee began investigating those tragicomic charges, two thirds of all American TV sets were tuned to the gavel-to-gavel coverage. But before committee attorney Ray Jenkins could call his first witness, McCarthy interrupted with a phrase that became his byword. "A point of order, Mr. Chairman," he said. "May I raise a point of order?"

That exchange set the pattern. Again and again McCarthy interrupted others to make speeches and attack witnesses. On TV, with his five o'clock shadow and his sneer, he looked like a caricature of a B-movie bully. His fatal moment came on June 9. Roy Cohn, the chief attorney for McCarthy's subcommittee, was being questioned by the Army's special counsel, the elfin, courtly Joseph Welch of Boston, when McCarthy interrupted again. In a voice laden with sarcasm, he announced that a young lawyer in Welch's firm, Fred Fisher, had once belonged to a leftist lawyers' group.

Welch looked stunned and close to tears. "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," he said, slowly and emotionally. "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?"

The audience in the caucus room gave Welch a standing ovation and subsequently polls showed McCarthy's popularity had plummeted. Two days later, Sen. Ralph Flanders, a flinty Vermont Republican, introduced a motion to strip McCarthy of his committee chairmanships. That was given little chance of passage, so Flanders amended it, asking that McCarthy be censured for conduct "contrary to senatorial traditions." Even that watered-down bill might have died if McCarthy had apologized for his more tasteless outbursts. Sen. Everett Dirksen, one of Joe's supporters, drafted a letter of apology and pleaded with McCarthy to sign it. "Ev, I don't crawl," he told Dirksen. "I learned to fight in an alley. That's all I know."

"Joe wanted to win every battle," James Juliana says sadly. "And not 6-0 but 72-0." McCarthy was stoic when the censure motion passed. He promised to "get back to the real work of digging out Communism," but his heart was no longer in it. McCarthy's health was failing; he was drinking more and holding it less well; and on May 2, 1957 he died of a liver disease. He was 48.

Most of the big names of the McCarthy era—Welch, Eisenhower, Murrow—are gone now too, and many of the rest would like to forget all about it. David Schine is a movie producer, Irving Peress is practically retired from dentistry and living in Queens, and both refuse interviews. And that leaves Roy Cohn and Owen Lattimore, still at their old, opposing stands.

A couple of days before he died, McCarthy asked Roy Cohn to cover some of his speaking engagements, and Cohn, now 57, is still speaking for McCarthy: "He was a guy who undertook a rough fight at a rough time, and he was right." The hearings that destroyed his patron didn't hurt Cohn a bit. "The Army-McCarthy hearings put me on the map—totally—because what was I before that?" Today, Cohn is a high-powered Manhattan lawyer, handling divorce, corporate and criminal matters for a star-studded clientele. His office wall attests to his celebrity-crowded life. It holds autographed pictures of Richard Nixon (who himself got to the Senate by calling his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, pink), Cardinal Terence Cooke, J. Edgar Hoover, George Steinbrenner and Ronald and Nancy Reagan, whose photo bears the message, "To Roy Cohn, with deepest appreciation." There is also one of Cohn with McCarthy, a photo he says proves his "loyalty." Nonetheless, he admits McCarthy erred in the Fisher exchange. "It was poor judgment, of course," he says. "It was basically irrelevant to the point at hand." Then, smiling, he adds a corollary: "Something has happened since then which has made me feel much better about it. I got to know Fisher in connection with a civil case where we were both on the same side. And I found him to be totally obnoxious, which salved my conscience considerably." Fisher, still with Welch's old law firm, declines all comment.

While Cohn travels by chauffeured stretch limo in New York, Owen Lattimore pedals an exercise tricycle in Cambridge, England. In his book-cluttered, two-bedroom flat he is working on four books, including his autobiography and a translation from Mongolian of a work on herdsmanship. "I'm living happily, working hard and getting a good deal done," he says, but he is tired of talking about McCarthy. "Mine was not an isolated case," he says. "Others suffered more than I did. What was deplorable was the whole business of jeopardizing your career unless you talked about China in certain terms. We talk about Soviet and Chinese brainwashing but we went through our own brainwashing, which was that the Chinese were a hateful people and everything they did was wrong. Until," he adds, chuckling at the irony, "along comes Nixon, who tries to set things straight a bit."

Could it happen again? "I think it's very unlikely," says James St. Clair, Welch's assistant at the Army-McCarthy hearings, who went on to defend Richard Nixon during the Watergate hearings. "The public has a long memory." The old professor isn't so sure. "Quite possible," Owen Lattimore mutters, with a shrug. "It's the same old story. People don't learn from history."

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