After my accusing so many others of practising McCarthyism in our politically fractured age, I finally committed to absorbing Larry Tye’s ‘Demagogue’, the 2020 biography (consumed in audio form) of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, the titular firebrand who led a crusade against the ‘reds’ in the surprisingly short window of 1950 – 54.
A daunting 20+ hours, to be spent with an incredibly unsavoury character, I quickly felt I had embarked upon a mountain climb in the wrong shoes. But Tye’s meticulous exploration soon ensured my trepidation was misplaced. It’s been a considerable span since the ‘Tailgunner’ had a close-up of this magnitude, and Tye delves into this narrative with an almost forensic attention to detail thanks to previously concealed Cold War documents, Russian insights, and writings of McCarthy’s private musings. ‘Detail’ can be a double-edged sword for a reader: we want as much as we can get, but quickly. While we don’t get it quickly at 608 pages, this book never lags, and as horrid a subject as Joe McCarthy is, this vivid, yet restrained portrait kept me fascinated.
McCarthy’s putrid reputation aside, Tye sketches the early days of Joe as surprisingly benign. We meet a charismatic young man of diligence – albeit with a penchant for academic laziness – who was competent at the bar and bore a military record that, while not without its post-hoc embellishments, Tye defends as largely respectable.
Yet, as the narrative unravels and McCarthy finds his way into the corridors of Washington, the mirage dissolves. Any veneer of decency becomes quickly overshadowed by a reign of vitriolic bullying, unabashed alcoholism, and a flagrant disregard for fairness and due process. Tye’s prose here reminds one of an autopsy, clinically dissecting the myth of McCarthy. Tye is relentless and unequivocal: The communist conspiracies McCarthy so vociferously proclaimed were largely phantoms, with the real Soviet tendrils having been neutralized long before McCarthy’s tirades.
A fascinating section of the book charts McCarthy’s search for a cause after an underwhelming first period in office. He latched upon an Abu Graib-style prisoner abuse scandal, only to be left red-faced when the public couldn’t care less as to how Nazi war criminals were treated in their confinement. In a startling firsthand account, McCarthy – at a loss after the first led balloon – is said to have asked his table at an event what cause he should then take up. When someone offered ‘care of the elderly and pensions’ McCarthy dismissed it with…
“No. Not enough sex…”
What he meant by this was he wanted a cause that would create real frisson. He wanted to be a scandal maker. This was clearly the priority and we are given no reason in the book to believe he ever truly believed in any of it. Ever.
Beyond the main character, Tye’s narrative expands to the complicit ensemble surrounding McCarthy: the malleable Republicans (many of whom personally detested him), the financial heavyweights of the far-right, Catholic hardliners, and liberals cowering under the looming shadow of being labelled ‘communist sympathizers’. The Kennedy brothers make an early appearance as friends of McCarthy, challenging their liberal credentials and possibly even suggesting they too were more focused on which way the political wind was blowing than they were on principle. Even the great Eisenhower isn’t spared, portrayed as the reluctant ‘enabler-in-chief’, dancing a delicate, non-confrontational waltz around the dangerous Senator.
Tye’s only stumble is the overt drawing of parallels between McCarthy and Trump. The linkage, while seductive given the men’s mutual confidant Roy Cohn, feels a tad too overt and interested in seeking relevance to a contemporary reader in a narrative otherwise steeped in nuance. It could’ve been a late suggestion made by an editor. A sophisticated reader doesn’t require the signposts, but also to call McCarthy Trumpian is to only tell half of the story. What is so chilling about the senator as depicted – and reassuring about our own age – is that McCarthy operated like Trump and the ‘woke’ cancel-culture crowd rolled into one. For all the things Trump claims to be, moral arbiter is not one of them. The woke do assume this mantle as did this moral crusader. And like the ‘woke’ McCarthy was tolerated rather than commanding outright support while he wished people into the cornfield. At least today these two illiberal forces are oppositional today, and not represented in one political beast as they were in McCarthy.
While resisting arriving at any concrete conclusion, McCarthy’s possible – even probable – homosexuality is another constant thread in the book, starting right back at his clumsy courtship of wife-to-be Jean Kerr, a secretary in his office whom he marries relatively late after leaving her hanging for an extended period and for no discernible reason. Right-hand man Roy Cohn, of course, would be immortalised in Tony Kushner’s epic two-part Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘Angels in America’ and succumbed to AIDS in 1986. Cohn allegedly had an affair with another McCarthy staffer G. David Schine and the trio often travelled together. Most compelling was the allegation by an Army Lieutenant (which made it into McCarthy’s FBI file) that McCarthy had picked him up in a bar, gotten him drunk and sodomised him. And after Nevada publisher Hank Greenspun wrote that McCarthy frequented a certain gay bar where he’d pick up young men, McCarthy refused to sue. If McCarthy was a homosexual, it is hard not to loathe him even more considering the blackmailing of homosexuals was a common practise by McCarthy and his crew in trying to extract new targets to smear and destroy.
By the end of his reign of terror, he was brandishing the gavel visibly drunk, and his physical decline and early death from alcoholism (aged just 48) are detailed to an extent that you almost feel sympathy. Almost. In a harrowing and explicit chapter, the countless who wished ill on him had their wishes granted.
Tye nudges you towards conclusions about his subject, but through facts and not supposition, trusting his reader will take care of that in trying to unravel a complex and perplexing man. You feel in safe hands (notwithstanding the Trump allusions – a minor, thankfully short, and unsurprising hiccup) throughout the book that keeps clear of any discernible agenda.
The book is in fact called ‘Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.’ Like the Trump references, the aforementioned ‘Long Shadow’ feels designed to snare the contemporary reader wanting a history that informs the now. McCarthy certainly didn’t invent the witch-hunt so can’t be blamed for today’s moral panic. But the lesson of the book, to me at least, is not to let any of the bastards get away with this stuff. McCarthy was disliked by his own party, but never confronted. I suppose the other lesson in McCarthy’s life is that every bully will eventually bite off more than they can chew, and when they do, their downfall tends to be swift, and unforgiving. They learn, as McCarthy did, just how friendless they really were.
Tye wrote a biography of Robert Kennedy in 2016 which I haven’t read but is next on my list. I would look at his 2009 biography of black baseball star Satchel Paige and pioneering spin doctor Edward Bernays too. Tye is a classy, disciplined writer. Bring on RFK.