Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book Review 300: McCarthyism

MCCARTHYISM, edited by Thomas C. Reeves. 143 pages. Krieger paperback

The first time I encountered Ted Cruz, I thought: McCarthy (see “Republican Entrails,” Oct. 6). Many others had the same reaction; see, for example, Peter Lewis’s  Words & Ideas blog,  “Just Sayin’,” Sept. 25.

Lewis and I know a lot about Joe McCarthy, and I am just old enough to remember the fear that suffused the room when his name came up; and the enthusiasm for him at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. But, at Maui Friends of the Library Friday, I noticed an old copy of Thomas Reeves’s guide for undergraduates, “McCarthyism,” and I wondered, what do younger people, with no direct input from people who were affected in the days of McCarthyism, know of him?

For most, McCarthy is just a word of abuse, they don’t know any more about him than they know about  John D. Rockefeller or Shipwreck Kelly. But for a minority, with at least enough interest to have taken a course in modern American political movements, the essays collected by Reeves are likely to provide a good Idea of what the politically active person knows of McCarthy.

I was impressed by the amount of material that Reeves, author of a massive biography of McCarthy, got into so few pages. The first half of the book includes essays about McCarthy’s career. The second, essays about how to interpret that.

It is telling that, 50 years after his death, political thinkers are still uncertain about what made McCarthy go, and what drew people to him. What repelled them is obvious enough.

Nothing here calls into question the idea that Cruz is another McCarthy. The only real difference is that McCarthy was said, even by reporters who detested his politics, to have been charming when he wanted to be. Nobody says that about Cruz.

I have read a great deal about McCarthy, and his charm entirely escapes me. The biggest defect of Reeves’s “McCarthyism” is the absence of McCarthy. Except briefly in a memoir by James Wechsler of being interrogated by McCarthy, the man and his voice are absent from this book. A couple of pages devoted to one of his speeches or press statements would have been helpful.

There is a split of opinion about McCarthy’s ambition. I hold that for a brief moment he was almost persuaded that he could have replaced Eisenhower in ’56. But his life was too chaotic, he was too addicted to carousing for the job of president to have appealed for long to either his sensible or his dreaming self.

He was a power monster but had no program to apply that power to. Cruz also is a power monster, and while he talks as if he has a program -- negative and destructive but a kind of program nevertheless -- it is far from clear that his real program extends beyond the aggrandizement of Cruz.

Many commentators have noted that while he trashed his party this month, he himself got a huge mailing list and a lot of money. But he does not play well with others, which, in normal circumstances, would limit his political career, as it did McCarthy’s.

The big difference between McCarthy and Cruz, it seems to me, is that McCarthy was accidental.

In his annotated reading list, Reeves says that Donald Crosby “attempts with some success to challenge the belief in a close association between McCarthy and the Roman Catholic clergy and laity.” Having been there, i can attest the link was tight.

In the ‘40s, the church was desperate to reclaim its lost status and property east of the Elbe. Our hero was Mindzenty for whom we prayed incessantly. I take it as well established that the church was anxious to find a paladin in the American government to act as its repo agent.

McCarthy was hardly its favorite choice. An unsuccessful, abrasive, whoring drunkard best known for fretting over the treatment of Nazi murderers, the bishops went to him only after being rebuffed by all the respectable Catholic politicians. Though accidental, he was unexpectedly and brilliantly effective, briefly, in attracting attention, though the church was disappointed in failing to get the government to initiate a new world war on its behalf.

Cruz’s path seems carefully plotted.

Among the essayists collected by Reeves (including Reeves himself), it is a consensus that McCarthy never presented an existential threat to the American political system, because he never set up a party organization of his own, and he was opposed by an effective establishment in his own party.

Cruz is out to remedy the first by taking command of the Tea Party, and spokesmen for the TP are talking about supplanting the Republican Party. Cruz is being opposed by an establishment in his party, but it remains to be seen whether it will be effective.

In any event, on deeper examination, the quick apprehension that Cruz is another McCarthy proves to be correct in many respects.


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