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A Last Battler Against Joe McCarthy and His "Ism" | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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A Last Battler Against Joe McCarthy and His "Ism"

The arc of history is long, and those who bend it over particularly wide stretches to time sometimes outlive memories of the most dramatic turns.

Such is the case with Thomas Fairchild, the last man to mount a serious electoral challenge to Joe McCarthy and the "ism" he spawned, who has died this week at age 94.

Fairchild's rendevous with destiny played out a very long time ago? In deed, on the day of the vote in which Fairchild sought to prevent the reelection of the red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin in 1952, afternoon newspapers carried accounts of aged Civil War veterans casting ballots.

We have come so far from the distant days of McCarthy's "redscare" that it is easy to forget the courage that it took to challenge the senator at the height of his political power -- and his dominance of the national discourse.

No less a figure than Dwight Eisenhower, the man who would be electedpresident in the same 1952 election that saw the Fairchild-McCarthy contest play out, avoided taking McCarthy to task, for fearon the general's part that he too might face the wrath of the senator whose wild charges of communist conspiracies had targeted and terrorized the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Congress and the media.

Fairchild did not have to enter the firestorm.

As the election approached, he was the most successful Democratic political figure in the still very Republican state of Wisconsin. Fairchild was, in fact, the only member of his party to win statewide office since the Franklin Roosevelt landslide of 1932.

Having served a term as a civil-liberties defending and corporation-challenging attorney general in the late 194Os, he was by 1952 comfortably in position as the appointed U.S. Attorney for the western district of Wisconsin. Handsome and articulate, a member of one of Wisconsin's oldest families, the son of a state Supreme Court justice, he was a political "golden boy" who was tagged by just about everyone for a bright future in elective office or the judiciary.

Then, University of Wisconsin-Madison students, fearful that McCarthywould be reelected over weak opposition, formed a "Fairchild vs. McCarthy" club and delivered a petition to the U.S. Attorney that read: "We, the undersigned students of the Univerity of Wisconsin -- Republicans, Democrats and Independents -- oppose the re-election of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and urge you, Thomas E. Fairchild, to announce your candidacy for United States senator."

The students knew Fairchild as one of the few prominent figures with the courage to take on McCarthy. An able lawyer, who would go on toserve as chief judge of the U.S.Court Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Fairchild hit McCarthy where it hurt when, in 195O, he challenged the senator to relinquish his official immunity and publicly repeat libelous charges he had made against employees ofthe U.S. State Department. The challenge exposed McCarthy'srecklessness and hypocrisy, at least to those Americans who were paying attention. But they also led to attacks on Fairchild's patriotism by McCarthy's allies.

Well aware of McCarthy's viciousness, and of the ugliness of the political moment, Fairchild did not leap at the "opportunity" to oppose the senator in 1952. But he finally decided that he had to make the race. And he did so without apology or caution. Condemning McCarthy and McCarthyism for causing a "deadening of the human spirit through ruthless insistence on total conformity," the Democratic candidate declared that, "The outcome of the election will go far toward determining whether we give the green light to ahome-grown gestapo as the advance guard of a new totalitarianism, or whether we will stop this ugly threat to American freedom dead in its tracks."

Fairchild did not stop McCarthyism in its tracks. But heslowed the red-scare down by standing up to McCarthy when too few others would. On election day, McCarthy prevailed. Yet, he ran far behind other Republicans, and that vulberability was noticed by his fellow senators, by Eisenhower and by a growing number of journalists, who slowly began to find the courage to confront the senator and his "ism." Though McCarthy continued to hold his high-profile "red-hunting" hearings for several more years, the evidence of homestate opposition to the senator -- which would come into stark relief when a mass campaign by recall the senator from office -- made national news and was frequently cited by critics of the senator.

There is no question that Fairchild was right when he said that McCarthy and McCarthyism "brought shame on Wisconsin." But, if anyone restored the state's honor and offered a lesson in political courage that ought not be forgotten in this time of the Patriot Act and new assaults on civil liberties and dissent, it is Thomas Fairchild.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

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