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Book Review: Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, by Larry Tye

by published

"Have you sir, no sense of decency? Have you, at long last, no sense of decency?" - Robert Welch, attorney at law, addressing Joe McCarthy, at the Army McCarthy Hearings.

This is an excellent, only slightly flawed, book. Tye has done a lot of research on McCarthy, and destroys many myths about the senator. While many of these myths have been perpetrated by the right (For example, the idea that he was a skilled and intelligent foe of communism. He barely understood what communism was. His misguided anti-communist crusade actually helped Russia.), he also blows up a couple of the ones promoted by McCarthy foes. For example, his military record was, in fact, excellent, and he won several medals and commendations. In addition, he was often capable (in private) of kindness, truthfulness, and sensitivity.

Having said that, the man's record was appalling. His service as a senator was almost completely devoid of significant legislation. For all his anti-communist talk, he exposed only a handful of Soviet operatives while harming dozens of innocent people and drove some to suicide with his wildly exaggerating charges. As we said, he understood little about Communism. When the stalwart anti-communist, Whittaker Chambers, tried to explain communism to the senator, he was shocked by McCarthy's ignorance and superficiality. While his native intelligence was high, he was too lazy to use it effectively. While capable of being witty and charming (he almost married into the Kennedy family), he seemed to prefer being a blowhard and a bully. Finally, he fell victim to his own abuse of power. His last years were descent into a maelstrom of guilt, self-loathing, and alcoholism, relieved only by his affection for his wife and their adopted daughter. On June fourth, 1957, his failed liver caught up with him and he died.

Tye's book is an excellent account of McCarthy and of his lingering shadow in American politics. After a careful reading, I can only detect a few flaws. For example, his (excellent) bibliography omits the book which, up to now, was the definitive biography of the terror from Wisconsin, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy, by Robert C. Reeves. Reeves, a conservative, tried hard to be sympathetic, but, in the end, shows him to have been frequently reckless, cruel and bombastic. In short, this is an excellent book and is indispensable for understanding modern American history.