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McCarthy's (and Ashcroft's) Nemesis | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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McCarthy's (and Ashcroft's) Nemesis

In the summer of 1951, Senator Joe McCarthy's burgeoning red scare had intimidated not just official Washington but the nation's media. Free speech was taking a hit everywhere, but especially in McCarthy's home state of Wisconsin, where the senator had been peddling his politics of fear for years. It was in this context that John Patrick Hunter, a new reporter for The Capital Times, a newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin that had frequently tangled with McCarthy, was assigned to write a Fourth of July feature story. Stuck for an idea, Hunter grabbed a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the office wall, and said to himself, "This is real revolutionary. I wonder if I could get people to sign it now."

Hunter typed the preamble of the Declaration, six amendments from the Constitution's Bill of Rights and the 15th amendment into the form of a petition. Then, he headed to a park where families were celebrating the Fourth. Of the 112 people he approached, 20 accused Hunter of being a communist. Many more said they approved of sentiments expressed in the petition but feared signing a document that might be used by McCarthy, who frequently charged that signers of petitions for civil rights, civil liberties or economic justice were either active Communists or fellow travelers. Only one man recognized the historic words and signed his name to the petition.

Hunter's petition drive became a national sensation. Time magazine, The Washington Post and, of course, The Nation cited it as evidence of the damage done by McCarthy and his 'ism to the discourse. President Harry Truman called The Capital Times to praise the paper and cited Hunter's article in a speech. Hunter and his colleagues on The Capital Times would battle McCarthy for the next six years, gathering evidence of wrongdoing and deception that would eventually embolden other journalists and help shift the political climate sufficiently to permit the Senate's censure of the red-baiting senator.

After McCarthy died in 1957, Hunter continued to champion the free speech rights of civil rights activists, antiwar protesters and anti-apartheid campaigners. Until his death this past November 26 at age 87, he maintained that it was the job of journalists -- especially those working on small-town and regional dailies far from Washington and New York -- not merely to report the news, but also to defend democracy and the liberties that underpin it. In his last years, Hunter fretted that the consolidation and homogenization of media was robbing the nation of maverick journalistic voices. And he worried a lot about the state of our civil liberties.

Even as his health failed him, Hunter could be stirred to high passion by the mention of Attorney General John Ashcroft's name. He despised the Patriot Act, the internment of immigrants and other assaults on individual liberty crafted by Ashcroft and his ilk in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He even talked about dusting off his 1951 petition and taking it out on another July 4. "The thing is to remind people that when these bastards take away anyone's freedom, we're all threatened," Hunter told me a few months before he died. "In the 1950s it was McCarthy. Now it's Ashcroft. Same fight."

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