Leland Thoburn: The way of the demagogue

Thomas J. O’Halloran photo/Library of Congress collection##Sen. Joseph McCarthy pictured in 1954.
Thomas J. O’Halloran photo/Library of Congress collection##Sen. Joseph McCarthy pictured in 1954.

‘While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”

So spoke U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a Feb. 9, 1950, speech before the Women’s Republican Club at the McLure Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia.

But he had no such list. Whatever the piece of paper was — some speculate it may have been an old grocery list — he threw it away after the speech.

McCarthy was a thick-shouldered, bushy-browed, shifty-eyed charlatan. He didn’t laugh like other men; he snickered. He always carried a fifth of whiskey in his briefcase and bragged that he drank that amount every day. He would always need to shave.

He was elected as a Wisconsin senator in the Republican mid-term wave of 1946. He soon distinguished himself by taking bribes and contributing nothing to senatorial proceedings.

The Washington press corps voted him the worst senator in the body.

No matter. McCarthy had bluster.

Upon his return to Washington, he faced demands from the State Department and fellow Senators to produce his list and support his charges. And the demands caught him off guard.

He had not kept any notes. He did not have a list.

He appealed to newspaper reporters, eyewitnesses, even ham radio operators to remind him of what he had said. And he conceived a plan.

On Feb. 20, “Tail Gunner Joe,” as he liked to be called, appeared on the Senate floor with 81 “dossiers,” hastily provided him by an ally on the House Appropriations Committee.

For six hours, under the watchful eye of the press, spectators and fellow Senators, McCarthy thumbed through the papers, giving them his running commentary.

Some, he admitted, had nothing to do with the State Department. Another was “not important insofar as communist activities are concerned.”

Some of the files were empty. Another file’s only condemnatory feature was that it contained nothing “to disprove his communist connections.”

Another was “very highly recommended by several witnesses as … a democratic American who … opposed communism.” Three with Russian names became “Russians.” And so on.

It was obvious to all watching that he had never seen these papers before.

Most men would have been thoroughly embarrassed by such a performance. Not Joe.

Truth, justice and shame did not orbit whatever planet he came from. All that mattered was finding a cause that he could ride to re-election.

He found it by declaring war on the individuals and institutions of American government. For the next four years, McCarthy fixed the attention of the press and the public on one spectacle after another, like a ringmaster directing a cadre of dancing dogs.

The America of 1950 was a turbulent “brave new world.”

Water fluoridation and mental health programs had just been introduced. A polio vaccine was just around the corner. Suspicions flared of medically induced communist brainwashing abetted by the democratic bureaucracy.

The communist threat was real. Spies had been caught, tried and, in the case of the Rosenbergs, faced execution for passing atomic secrets to our cold war foe.

Russia had reciprocated by exploding its first atomic bomb in August, 1949.

People yearning for safer, simpler times thought they found them in McCarthy. He played to their faith and fears, calling them his “Loyal American Underground.” Even today, some call him a saint.

“Today, we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between Communistic atheism and Christianity.” And so, McCarthy waged war:

n With no facts, only innuendo, he branded two of the State Department’s most important anti-communist propaganda tools as communist sympathizers — the Voice of America radio network and the U.S. Information Service library program. The former was nearly shuttered by the attacks; the latter survived by conducting a hurried purge of its offending titles, one of which was Robin Hood, the basis for a popular Disney movie.

n After U.S. Army Brigadier General Ralph W. Zwicker refused to answer McCarthy’s questions concerning a soldier under Zwicker’s command, McCarthy exploded, asserting Zwicker “did not have the brains of a 5-year-old child,” and should “be removed from command.”

n He announced he had discovered a Soviet plot to ensnare women employees of the State Department by luring them into lesbianism.

n When Senate investigators branded him a fraud and hoax, McCarthy claimed the charges were “a pack of lies” and his accusers a disgrace to the Senate.

n Democrats received the majority of his vitriol, McCarthy insisting, “The candidates running on the Democratic ticket are, almost without exception, members of the Democratic party’s left-wing clique, which has been so blind to the communist conspiracy and has tolerated it in the United States.” For perspective, substitute “woke” for “communist.”

McCarthy wielded the cudgel of “communist sympathizer,” or even “Communist agent,” on all those who opposed him. As a result, innocent people lost careers, friends and freedoms. Some even lost their lives.

McCarthy was numb to the consequences of his charade. He completely lacked the filter that civilized men possess — the filter that moderates aggression — and he welcomed into his inner circle men of similar disability.

“I don’t answer charges, I make them,” he famously said.

His followers loved it. Every fresh outrage spurred a torrent of cash-stuffed envelopes which he diverted for his personal use.

He even had his devoted corps of media sycophants.

The Hearst Newspaper chain — the Fox News of its day — nourished itself for four years with the inhale and exhale of Joe’s miasma. Fulton Lewis Jr., a radio personality who has been described as “one of the most unprincipled journalists ever to practice the trade,” and “completely lacking in objectivity,” was ever at the ready to sacrifice lady truth on the altar of McCarthyism.

During one of his tirades, a reporter spotted something worth questioning. “Wasn’t that a classified document you were reading?” he asked.

“It was,” McCarthy shot back. “I declassified it.”

He had not. He could not. But laws were for shackling others, not him.

In 1953, McCarthy launched another fruitless investigation, this time into the U.S. Army.

In November of that year, David Schine, one of McCarthy’s aides, was drafted. Soon, McCarthy’s office began pressuring the Army to allow Schine special privileges and give him an inappropriate promotion.

The Army publicly accused McCarthy of coercion. McCarthy accused the Army of acting in bad faith.

The Senate decided that the matter should be investigated. The stage was set for the biggest show of the decade.

In May 1954, the hearings began.

For the nascent medium of television, they were a godsend. For the next 36 days, an estimated 80 million people watched the Army and McCarthy thrust and parry.

His staff tried introducing a doctored photograph into evidence and got caught. He introduced a forged FBI document, and J. Edgar Hoover himself repudiated its validity.

At one point in the hearings, McCarthy was cross-examined by Joseph Welch, a lifelong Republican and special counsel to the U.S. Army. The subject was a confidential FBI letter in McCarthy’s possession illegally, and McCarthy was refusing to divulge the source.

Welch: And you, of course, understood that you were going to be asked the source from which you got it.

McCarthy: I won’t answer that.

Welch: Have you some private reservation when you take the oath that you will tell the whole truth that lets you be the judge of what you will testify to?

McCarthy: The answer is that there is no reservation about telling the whole truth.

Welch: Thank you sir. Then tell us who delivered the document to you!

McCarthy: The answer is no. You will not get the information.

The McCarthy ship began taking on water. What Welch had done was maneuver McCarthy into obstructing a legitimate congressional inquiry.

McCarthy was momentarily saved by fellow Republicans who bailed furiously while diverting the hearings to other matters. But McCarthy knew he had been wounded.

He seethed, and plotted his revenge. Soon, he got his chance.

Taking advantage of a break in Welch’s questioning, McCarthy jumped in and falsely accused an innocent young man in Welch’s office of communist sympathies. A charge like that, made on the Senate floor in front of a national TV audience, amounted to a death sentence for the young man’s career.

Welch hung his head, and implored McCarthy, “Have you no decency, sir?”

McCarthy continued his attack while his allies around the table were entreating him to stop. He paused, then snickered.

Welch responded, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”

The hearings soon ended. Welch received an ovation as he left the room, and McCarthy was left sitting alone, except for the television technicians and security guards.

“What did I do?” he asked when no one would look at him. His ship had begun to list.

Two days later, a Republican senator introduced a resolution censuring McCarthy. “I think they should get a net and take him to a good quiet place,” was McCarthy’s spittled response.

The resolution passed the Senate by a vote of 67-22, and McCarthy never had another meaningful day there. His ship had slipped beneath the waves.

McCarthy would not live out his term, dying in 1957 at the age of 48. But for Republicans, it was next man up.

That man would be Richard Nixon.

McCarthy’s legacy was to tarnish forever the cause he espoused — combating communist subversion in the U.S. government. But that is the way of the demagogue. The most certain of their casualties are the causes and people they so insincerely embrace.

If you have the time, Google the Roman politician Catiline. Or Huey Long or Father Coughlin in the U.S. Or any of the 20th century’s dictators or tyrants. They all follow a pattern.

No, Joseph McCarthy was not the first.

And he wasn’t the last.

Guest writer Leland Thoburn is a retired business consultant who has been making his home in McMinnville’s West Hills neighborhood for 11 years. He has been a writer all his life, but didn’t start writing professionally until 2007. He has had more than 100 articles and short stories published since that time, the articles focusing mostly on civil liberties. 



It never fails. The Fox News derangement syndrome is second only to the Trump derangement syndrome. It's a crappy news channel. Same as CNN and MSLSD, don't let it live rent free in your head.


This is an excellent history lesson on "Mccarthyism". The similarities of the present situation is apparent. 50 yrears from now "Trumpism" will most likely be held in the same place in history.


For some history and facts like this is painful and they refute it because they can't admit it is what they see in the mirror.

Bill B

Very well written and informative as well.


We must learn from our history....now matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel...and never try to erase it by banning books.