Saturday, August 15, 2020

Long Shadow from Appleton

I was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. During my early childhood, I was blissfully unaware of politics. But Appleton was home base for some of the nastiest politics of the 20th Century. I gradually learned about the evil my hometown birthed and nurtured. In high school, I learned that the cemetery just down the street from my school was the eternal resting place of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In a review in The New Yorker of a new biography by Larry Tye, "Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy," Lewis Menand describes McCarthy in ways that are creepily familiar. See if you can find the parallels to a prominent politician today in these quotes from Tye's review:

  • McCarthy was a bomb-thrower—and, in a sense, that is all he was. He would make an outrageous charge, almost always with little or no evidentiary basis, and then he would surf the aftershocks. When these subsided, he threw another bomb.
  • McCarthy had the support of a media conglomerate, the Hearst papers, which amplified everything he said
  • He tried to block a hostile newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal, from his press conferences, and he egged on the crowds at his rallies to harass the reporters.
  • Almost the entire political establishment was afraid of him. You could fight him, in which case he just made your life harder, or you could ignore him, in which case he rolled right over you.
  • He verbally abused people who disagreed with him...His fans liked that he was a bully, and they liked that he scandalized the genteel and the privileged.
  • To his supporters, he could say and do no wrong. Tye quotes the pollster George Gallup, in 1954: "Even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, they would probably still go along with him."
  • He didn’t need to prove anything, and he almost never did, because it didn’t matter. Your name in McCarthy’s mouth was the kiss of death. He was a destroyer of careers.
  • McCarthy lied all the time. He lied even when he didn’t need to lie.
  • He was incapable of sticking to a script. He rambled and he blustered, and if things weren’t going his way he left the room.
  • He was notoriously lazy, ignorant, and unprepared, and he had a reputation for following the advice of the last person he talked to.
  • McCarthy had never cared what kind of attention he got, as long as he got it, and he could not handle being ignored.
  • Once McCarthy was in a position of power, he was incapable of modifying his behavior. He could not shut it off, even when everyone around him was begging him to. He had a single explanation for everything, and the only way he knew how to do his job was by threatening and prevaricating.

Does that sound like any politician today? Thought so. Joe McCarthy must be smiling up at us from his grave in Appleton...or somewhere lower.

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