On Feb. 9, 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy arrived in Wheeling to give a speech at the annual Republican Lincoln Day Dinner celebration at the McLure Hotel.
But which speech? He had two in hand that day.
One was a “snoozer on national housing policy,” according to biographer Larry Tye. The other had the potential to start a storm of revolution and fear. Being the willful, stubborn junior senator from Wisconsin, he went with the speech that would catch the attention of the elite in Washington.
McCarthy claimed he had a list of 205 Soviet operatives who were working within the U.S. government. In his “red-baiting barnburner,” speech he waved a piece of paper that couldn’t confirm his claims but didn’t need to because of the outcry it caused. While most of Wheeling was a democratic strong-hold, the guests at this dinner were GOP supporters and were anxious to back McCarthy’s idea of rooting out communists that were “still working and shaping policy at the State Department.” This was the launch of McCarthy’s infamous crusade against communists in the United States, but it was not the first time McCarthy caused a scene.
While there are many books written about McCarthy and the wide swath of destruction he left in his wake, Tye had a unique experience to add to the literature on the subject. He recently wrote a book about Bobby Kennedy. During his interview with Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, she commented that she and her husband both found McCarthy to be “just plain fun.” In fact, Bobby started his political career as one of McCarthy’s Cold Warriors. While many of the era labeled McCarthy a monster, a full 50 percent of the U.S. approved of his mission when he was at the height of his power.
A TIE TO TODAY’S DEMAGOGUES
Tye knew there was more to the story that needed to be told. “I wanted to understand what made McCarthy a hero to so many as well as villain to others. I wanted to see the man behind the caricature. I wanted to uncover the lessons that today’s demagogues learned from the archetypal bully, Joseph R. McCarthy,” Tye said.
Sixty years ago, McCarthy’s widow, Jean Kerr, left her husband’s personal and professional papers to his alma mater, Marquette University. These documents have been kept from the public, until now, when Tye was granted access. Those papers give us a deeper and more nuanced look at the man whose name has become code for witchhunts and baseless accusations.
Tye was able to capture all of these aspects of McCarthy’s personality in his book, which will be available on July 7.
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“Pulling open the curtain, we find Senator McCarthy revealed as neither the Genghis Khan his enemies depicted nor the Joan of Arc rendered by friends. Somewhere between that saint and that sinner lies the real man. He was in fact more insecure than we imagined, more undone by his boozing, more embracing of friends and vengeful toward foes, and more sinister,” says Tye.
McCarthy’s political career is clearly delineated into pre-Wheeling, when he was a junior senator, not taken very seriously by most other political figures of the time, and post-Wheeling, when he was a force that made even those in the upper echelons of the government nervous at his power.
While he burned out fairly quickly (a matter of years) without rooting out a single previously unknown communist, he left behind a trail of suicides, broken relationships, ruined lives and shattered careers. His accusations could land anywhere, and his closed-door investigations were ruthless. In the end, he died at age 48, an alcoholic, his health destroyed and his reputation cemented as the -ism we still recognize nearly 70 years later.
As Tye says in his introduction to the book, we still need to study McCarthy because he is not an anomaly. He is “a uniquely American strain of demagoguery [that] has pulsed through the nation’s veins from its founding days.”
Understanding McCarthy’s rise to power and hold over the American people is just one example of “a bipartisan queue of fanatics and hate peddlers who have tapped into America’s deepest insecurities.” In short, recognizing McCarthy’s methods will help us become more conscious citizens and voters.
In addition to his writing, Tye runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship, which helps the media do a better job reporting on critical issues like public health, mental health and high-tech medicine.
From 1986 to 2001, Tye was an award-winning reporter at TheBoston Globe, where his primary beat was medicine. He also served as the Globe’s environmental reporter, roving national writer, investigative reporter and sports writer. Before that, he was the environmental reporter at TheCourier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, and covered government and business at TheAnniston Star in Alabama. Tye, who graduated from Brown University, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1993-94. He taught journalism at Boston University, Northeastern and Tufts. Tye is currently writing a book titled, The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington, Satchmo Armstrong and Count Basie Transformed America.
• Stacey Sacco is a Wheeling native. She is a content writer and the former production editor of InWheeling Magazine. She reluctantly left Wheeling in 2019 for her husband’s job and now lives in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, with her husband and four children.