David Oshinsky: Disses the new book on Joe McCarthy

Historians in the News

[David Oshinsky, who holds the Jack S. Blanton chair in history at the University of Texas, is the author of “A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy.”]

No American politician of the 20th century is more reviled by historians and opinion makers than Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican whose 1950s anti-Communist crusade is synonymous with witch-hunting and repression. Actually, no politician even comes close. Herbert Hoover? True, the Great Depression occurred on his watch, goes the current wisdom, but Hoover can’t be blamed for a global catastrophe, and his economic programs paved the way for needed reforms. Richard Nixon? True, the Watergate scandal justified his resignation, but Nixon was a master statesman, we are reminded, whose initiatives produced détente with the Russians and an open door to China.

For McCarthy, there’s been no such balancing act. Americans have learned to view him as the nation’s most dangerous modern demagogue. Pick up a dictionary and you’ll find the word “McCarthyism” defined as “the practice of publicizing accusations with insufficient regard to evidence” and “the use of unfair investigatory methods to suppress opposition.” To be labeled a McCarthyite is akin to being called a liar or a fraud. His loudest current admirer is Ann Coulter, a fact, I suspect, that even the senator would have found unsettling.
My own biography of McCarthy was published in 1983. What most surprised me was the warm reception it got from hard-nosed conservatives like Pat Buchanan, who considered the book more balanced than what had come before. My final judgments on the senator did acknowledge his role in highlighting a number of security problems in the federal government, something previous writers had been reluctant to do. But I also described him as a serial slanderer who poisoned political debate, weakened government morale and made America look ridiculous in the eyes of the world.

A few years ago, on assignment for this newspaper, I attended a memorial service for McCarthy at his grave site in Appleton, Wis. It’s an annual event, sponsored by a local group that hopes to turn the senator’s birthday into a national holiday and put his likeness on a postage stamp. Most of the celebrants were elderly, and several belonged to the far-right John Birch Society. “There aren’t a lot of us still around,” an 87-year-old McCarthy supporter told me. “When we die, who’ll be left to tell the truth about Joe?”

He needn’t have worried. A full-throated defense of the senator is now in the bookstores. Written by M. Stanton Evans, a conservative journalist whose roots stretch back to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, it carries a title, “Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies” (Crown Forum, $29.95), that well explains its thesis. Though a handful of other pro-McCarthy books have appeared over the years — the most recent being Arthur Herman’s “Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator” — none created much interest among conservatives. But “Blacklisted by History” is drawing significant attention on the political right, where the reviews have ranged from gushing (The Weekly Standard) to scathing (National Review). If nothing else, Evans has forced his movement friends to look again at McCarthy. For conservatives, the crazy uncle has finally left the attic....

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