The Millionaire Who Took on McCarthy

Roundup
tags: McCarthy, William Benton



Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, was just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

A melodramatic mix of half-truths, rants, and innuendoes made Wisconsin’s junior Senator Joseph P. McCarthy powerful and intimidating. By 1951, he had cowed some of the Senate’s all time all stars, including Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Estes Kefauver, Robert Taft, J. William Fulbright, and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. 

The rare senator willing at that time to confront this “hit and run propagandist of the Soviet type” was a rookie senator from Connecticut. For introducing a resolution to expel this blathering bully, William Benton suffered McCarthyite blowback, including a $2 million libel suit. Many also believe Benton’s heroism lost him his Senate seat in 1952. Still, Benton insisted: “Somebody had to do this job.” Years later, as his legend grew, he would demur: “Well of course I like to think I did a lot of things that showed courage in the Senate.” But he admitted, it may have been “in part because of my political inexperience.”

This political amateur also had something his other colleagues lacked: a real life awaiting back home. As a millionaire adman, publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and owner of the Muzak Corporation, Benton could afford to be daring. Professional politicians, he would lament, “too often underestimate the long-range values of boldness and stubbornness in defense of an ideal.” As America’s new leaders take office, they should remember William Benton’s courage, deciding what ideals they will champion, no matter what.

Born in 1900 in Minneapolis, Benton was a true child of the 20th century who would master the business of mass communication. He was also the kind of preacher’s kid like Woodrow Wilson and John Foster Dulles who retained their parents’ puritan moralism even in the dirty world of politics. At Yale, class of 1921, he often felt treated like a Midwestern rube. After learning how to sell at the National Cash Register Company, Benton entered the world of secular American evangelism—advertising—working for 1920s’ legendary agency, Lord and Day.

In 1929, Benton launched Benton and Bowles with his former assistant Chester Bowles. Among the first to use consumer research surveys and radio advertising intelligently, they gave the world radio soap operas—and jingles. Six years later, despite the Great Depression, “rags-to-riches” Benton sold his share in what was now America’s sixth largest agency for $1 million. ...





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