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.”