Senator McCarthy gets advice from his attorney, Roy Cohn, at the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. Cohn went on to tutor the young Donald Trump
Observer Column, Pacific Island Times
‘Comey Day’ recalls the 1950s and Senator Joe McCarthy
I spent a whole day looking forward to the live coverage of fired FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony which began at midnight. Historic or not, ten minutes in I was snoring, knowing the story and replays would be around for many days to come.
Comey lived up to his billing, propelling the Russian interference investigation forward and activating a chorus of shrieks from the usual Trump surrogates, who then began to urge the president to obstruct the investigation by firing Special Counsel Mueller.
It made me think not so much of the Watergate hearings which I watched wall-to-wall back in the day, as the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings that historians view as the beginning of the end for Wisconsin’s most famous demagogue.
I have hazy memories of being dragged to the neighbors to watch the spectacle, since at the time we were hardly the only ones in town without a TV. When I got older, I learned that ‘Tailgunner Joe’ had effectively opened himself to national humiliation by his effort to tinker with the U.S. Army and other institutions as yet another publicity ploy.
McCarthy built his career by exploiting the American media’s faults, particularly the newest medium, television. Before the country was as connected as it is now, he put out ever changing numbers and lists of communists allegedly operating in the U.S. State Department and other parts of the federal government. Witnesses McCarthy dragged before congressional committees were bullied and humiliated. Major parts of his home state and national media exposed the lies and distortions and rather late in the day, CBS reporter Ed Murrow—uniquely for network TV—took up the cudgels against Joe. Back home in Wisconsin though, the majority of his constituents seemed just fine with their man in Washington.
Then as now Washington people on all levels were intimidated by the evident political popularity of this ‘red-bashing’ law maker and were slow to call his bluff, encouraging him to charge recklessly forward.
A covert effort to help a McCarthy staffer avoid being drafted into the Army failed; later, the office continued its efforts to get special privileges for Private David Schine by pressuring Army brass by accusing them of allowing communist infiltration in that military branch. The legal advisor who came up with this strategy was Roy Cohn, who later tutored young Donald Trump on how to approach the world, lessons he clearly never forgot.
In the widely televised hearing that followed, the two-edged sword of TV cut McCarthy badly. James Reston of the New York Times observed:
“One cannot remain indifferent to Joe McCarthy in one’s living room. He is an abrasive man. And he is recklessly transparent. The country did not know him before, despite all the headlines. Now it has seen him.”
Then TV critic Jack Gould offered a media assessment some years later: “That coverage did him in. People started to laugh at him. He became a joke, then a bore. He got tiresome. You can blame TV for a lot of things, but that is to its credit.”
If some of this sounds familiar, it should, though President Trump has for reasons known only to himself at this point, decided make friends with Russia and Vladimir Putin, rather than scoring political points by attacking them. As Trump may eventually learn, the populist, anti-institutional agenda he’s following may be very popular for a time. Until it isn’t.
Joe McCarthy, once considered on track to seek the presidency, went on to be censured by the U.S. Senate and to an early, alcohol-fueled death.