On Bill Maher’s HBO show last night, Amy Goodman—a guest on the panel for the first time—reminded Bill and the audience that a new McCarthyism was always a threat in America, even if at a more limited range than the original, back in the early 1950s. She pointed out that Representative Allen West, the raging Florida rightwinger, had claimed there were dozens of “Communists” in Congress, and that meant he could only be referring to the Progressive Caucus.
We’re a long way from the “Red Scare” of old, but we have seen, in increasing numbers in recent years, GOP politicians and rightwing pundits and radio hosts decrying the alleged anti-Americanism of many on the left, including liberal centrists like President Obama. So it might be useful here to look back at how “McCarthyism” got its name—a reminder for some, perhaps a revelation to younger people who may know what it means but unsure of the history.
So here is an excerpt from my book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas, 1950, which was published last week in a new print edition and for the first time as an ebook. The “Red Scare” and McCarthyism were at the center of that notorious campaign, and the book, but here is a snapshot focusing on McCarthy but also (a surprise to some) President Truman—opening with an incident that occured 62 years ago this week.
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It was the most terrifying moment in the history of the Washington Gridiron Club roasts. One evening in late June, reporters and other guests meeting in the ballroom of the Statler Hotel had just sat down to dinner when the doors flew open and a dark, heavyset, slightly balding man around forty years of age burst in carrying a revolver, a rifle, a machine gun-and a slingshot. Members of the audience gasped, some in horror but most in recognition. The gunman suddenly threw away his weapons and held out a baby’s diaper. “I’ll never let that go,” he declared. “That’s my cloak of immunity.” With that, a musical group started a number, and the intruder broke into song, spoofing a recent Bert Williams tune: “Somebody lied, Somebody lied, dear, dear; Some say there is no evidence, While others say it’s clear…”
The guest of honor had arrived: Joseph R. McCarthy, the increasingly controversial Republican senator from Wisconsin. The onlookers applauded vigorously, perhaps in relief. Many of them had never taken Joe McCarthy seriously. There was some comfort in recognizing—hoping—that he might not take himself seriously either.
The Gridiron roast came at an uncertain time for McCarthy. He had ridden a roller coaster since making his famous February 9 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. When the New York Times, in a June 24 article, reviewed the past four months, the headline said it all: McCARTHY UP TO NOW—NONE OF HIS CHARGES HAS BEEN PROVED BUT NO CONCLUSION IS IN SIGHT. The same day, Freda Kirchwey, editor of The Nation, provided her own summary, which included a definition of something called McCarthyism: “slander masked as testimony, protected by privilege, and broadcast as fact.”