A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
He was a U.S. senator known nationwide for his fiery anti-Communist rhetoric, but Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, was at an unusual loss for words the first time I saw him in action.
It happened at a hearing of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. As a New York attorney was testifying, McCarthy accused him of taking big fees from unsavory clients for deals which benefitted Communist countries. Suddenly, his voice sputtered. He'd lost his way.
The senator sitting next to him, a California Republican, rescued him.
“Blood money,” Richard Nixon whispered.
“Blood money!” McCarthy shouted triumphantly while the witness struggled to insist he was only doing a routine lawyer's job.
That was early in 1952, when Democrats were in control and I was a young reporter for the International News Service (INS). Elections later that year made Dwight Eisenhower the new president with Nixon as his running mate, and gave Republicans a majority in the Senate.
The shift in power enabled McCarthy to become chair of the Senate investigations subcommittee. For the next two years, I watched him lead the panel with aggressive inquiries based on unproven allegations of Communism as well as subversion and disloyalty.
McCarthy thrived with the escalation of the Korean War, mounting Cold War tensions and the growing public fear that the nation was threatened by conspiracies involving people with ties to a foreign country.
But his time in the spotlight was cut short by his Senate colleagues, who voted in 1954 to "condemn" him. That effectively ended his career in politics after a decade in the Senate.
Three years later, he was dead, at age 48, and I covered his funeral.
McCarthy won his first Senate term in 1946 and then was relatively obscure for three years until he claimed to know about Communists and spies working in the U.S. State Department. After becoming the investigations subcommittee chairman, he used his power to hold highly-publicized hearings, More than 400 witnesses testified at those sessions, often behind closed doors.
Some of the testimony was kept secret for 50 years. Many of those who testified publicly decided to invoke their constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, but that left them open to attacks by McCarthy as “Fifth Amendment Communists" or worse.
McCarthy also frequently blasted other politicians and government workers in harsh language while his detractors claimed that he was conducting "witch hunts." Although he never actually revealed a real Communist working in the government, he did a lot of Red-bashing with constant promotion in the news media including the Associated Press, INS and the United Press.
In those days, the AP, UP and INS were bread and butter for every politician seeking publicity. There was no cable TV news around-the-clock. When the print and broadcast reporters covered congressional hearings, their stories didn't reach the public until hours later. Only the news agencies – AP, UP and INS – provided swift reports 24/7 for their clients, including evening newspapers that wanted fresh news.
McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, gave the news services ample opportunities to update their reports in the morning, making charges and calling witnesses to launch the sessions. That way, they made sure the first stories wouldn't – couldn't – include responses later by other witnesses. He knew our system and played it like a violin.
"Joe," as he liked us to call him, also had another ploy. He invited us to his office to chat late every afternoon after hearings or on the eve of new ones. A baseball-loving colleague dubbed the get-togethers "dugout chatter.”
These sessions usually were on "background," meaning we could not quote him as our source. To keep it informal, McCarthy usually served us alcoholic drinks. Then, with a flourish and a giggle, he made one for himself -- a “Black Russian” cocktail of two-thirds vodka with Kahlua or coffee brandy over ice. He emphasized that the vodka was from the Communist-led Soviet Union.
A question often has arisen: were reporters, especially those from the news services, advancing McCarthy's purposes, or notoriety, when the nation was sharply divided on the propriety, accuracy, or decency of what he did?
I fear the answer is yes. My only explanation, frail as it may be, is that we news service journalists were under severe competitive pressures to report as soon as we had fresh information.
McCarthy faced resistance at times from Democratic members of the committee. In 1954, he yielded to their demands for a minority counsel, and they chose to hire Robert F. Kennedy. He had worked for the panel previously, despised Roy Cohn, and made it publicly obvious.
One day, the two men got into an argument within earshot of reporters, who heard Kennedy challenge Cohn "to step outside and settle this," which Cohn declined to do.
Kennedy resigned before long, but not because he had differences with McCarthy. One night, he invited some reporters, including me, to join him on a yacht for a short, informal cruise on the Potomac River. We knew Kennedy and others in his family were strong McCarthy backers.
At one point while we were talking, he said genially,, “Off the record, I gather that the press corps doesn't like Senator McCarthy. Why?"
"It's not personal. He's friendly and available," I told him, "and we try to keep open minds, but many of us don't like his tactics.”
“I don't understand," Kennedy replied. “All Joe is trying to do is fight Communism."
Whatever the reasons, McCarthy and his allies picked a fight with the Eisenhower Administration. In their view, the core of the dispute was whether there were Communists in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. A key figure in it was Irving Peress, a dentist who was drafted into the Army and branded a Communist. When his military rank rose from captain to major, McCarthy's battle cry became, “Who promoted Peress?"
But for administration officials including Eisenhower, who had been a five-star general, the issue was McCarthy's roundhouse assaults on officers in the Army and their boss, Secretary Robert Stevens. It reached a climax when McCarthy scornfully told Brig. Gen. Ralph Zwicker, "You are not fit to wear the uniform!" because Zwicker, a World War II hero, refused under Army regulations to divulge private information about Peress, his subordinate.
I had known for a while that the Eisenhower administration would take action at some point because of an off-the-record discussion with Vice President Nixon in his office near the Senate chamber.
“McCarthy's not the problem,” he said “It's Roy Cohn, and we're going to get him."
We later found out that Army counsel John Adams slipped a 34-page "chronology" to some senators and also to his friend, Phillip Potter, a Baltimore Sun newspaper reporter.
That document alleged that Cohn, with McCarthy's backing, wanted the Army to give special treatment to his friend, G. David Schine, who had been drafted recently. Among other things, Schine was to be promoted to lieutenant, to serve on the investigations subcommittee staff, and allowed to enjoy sundry other favors.
Potter knew the document was potential dynamite, but thought it wouldn't have much impact unless others also had access to it. He told me later that he made a copy and gave it to Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas, the subcommittee's senior Democrat, who despised McCarthy's tactics.
As Potter expected, McClellan invited five reporters, including me, to come to his apartment and showed us the document. Each one of us laboriously hand-copied all 34 pages. When we finished, it was close to midnight. I called my office to dictate a “bulletin” with a brief story for morning papers before going to the bureau to do a long account for the next day's afternoon papers, as well as radio and television newscasts.
The news generated banner headlines, and led all broadcast reports.
McCarthy responded quickly, accusing the Army of "blackmail” and using Schine as a "hostage” to discredit his own Communist-hunting crusade.
A national uproar led McCarthy's colleagues to call a special series of hearings, with him as a witness rather than chairman. The sessions were carried live on television. McCarthy's conduct, such as interrupting often with a guttural “Point of Order" demand, brought unfavorable national attention and led to his downfall.
The coup de grace came when Cohn was on the witness stand and being questioned aggressively by the Army's special counsel, Joseph N. Welch, a folksy, puckish Boston attorney. McCarthy angrily defended Cohn with an irrelevant claim that a young associate of Welch's law firm had once been a member of a Communist-front organization.
Welsh responded dramatically, in words that have been repeated innumerable times for retrospectives of the McCarthy years,.
"Until this moment," he said, "Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness ... Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
There were audible gasps, followed by a long silence.
McCarthy never recovered. A movement for the Senate to censure him gained the Eisenhower administration's backing,. Then, a special committee conducted hearings, again broadcast live on television.
In November's elections, Democrats regained control of the Senate.
That cost McCarthy his position as subcommittee chair. By that time, he had lost the respect of most of his colleagues and the news media.
When the Senate voted the next month to "condemn" McCarthy, it was for objectionable conduct toward colleagues, not for investigative missteps..
My coverage of McCarthy extended literally to his grave. After his Senate downfall, he drank heavily and died in May 1957, mainly due to cirrhosis of the liver. I covered his funeral in Washington at a church service full of admirers including politicians, government figures and other journalists.
Even now, long after his death, his “McCarthyism” brand lives on.
AL Spivak has been a White House reporter as well as an executive of the Democratic Party and General Dynamics Corp.
Joe McCarthy made sure the first news stories wouldn't - couldn't - include responses by people who were testifying later. He knew our system and played it like a violin. But his time in the Senate was cut short when his colleagues voted to "condemn" him. That effectively ended his career in politics. Three years later, at age 48, he died.