The rise and fall of the Wisconsin chicken farmer who, as a junior senator seeking power and prestige, briefly gained both as the nation’s anti-communist Grand Inquisitor in the 1950s.
No apologist for whom he considers perhaps America’s most effective demagogue of the latter half of the 20th century, the longtime New York Times national political writer is still able to illuminate—as perhaps McCarthy’s bitterest opponents never could—the human being behind the anti-Red rampage that brought innuendo and smear tactics to new lows in Washington. The author’s examination brings no radical or, for that matter, original conclusions on the ultimate impact of McCarthy’s campaign to rid government and its agencies of those tinged by the most casual association with anything related to Communist ideology. However, Wicker’s experience and analytical dexterity uncover and reassemble a host of factoids that help us understand how the phenomenon took its grip and gathered momentum so rapidly. McCarthy’s innate intelligence (an educational dropout, he went back at age 21 to complete four years of high school in nine months) and energy are seen as key. He senses that enhancing his U.S. Marines war record will win him elections and is willing to bet that the press won’t bother to check it; and, building on that experience, also bets the same press will run with sensational stories before fully checking the facts of accusations that his key targets are besmirched with Communist leanings, present or past. Wicker’s behind-the-scenes insights are pungent: For example, after Edward R. Murrow’s damning national broadcast (depicted in the recent film Good Night, and Good Luck), Senator Lyndon Johnson insists that committee hearings, which he expected would effectively expose and eviscerate “McCarthyism,” be televised to the nation in their entirety. And later, at the McCarthy graveside, a lone mourner from the other camp: Robert F. Kennedy.
A crisp portrait that adds to a broader understanding of the use of fear as an enduring political stratagem.