Shooting Star
The Brief Arc of
Joe McCarthy

Tom Wicker
During his four years of bedeviling our poor democracy, Joe McCarthy miffed many of us. He was noisy and uncouth --- a pest with the voice of a frog and the manners of a pig. In the Prologue to Shooting Star, Wicker finds himself facing McCarthy in 1957, shortly before his death. He is now a shambling man in the halls of the Old Senate Office Building. He stops Wicker not knowing who he is. "'S'your building, y'know," he insisted. "More'n any of ... these big shots. It's your place, sir.'"

It was Joe McCarthy stopping, shaking hands with the common man, something he loved to do for all of his short life.

This introduction is followed by a 200-page dissection of the evils of Joe McCarthy, his opportunistic ways, his obscene playing with facts, his malicious insults.

McCarthy was a jerk: of that there is no doubt. But there was something far more pernicious going on while the Senator was commanding the front pages of the media, especially the one that Wicker wrote for, the New York Times.

Hundreds of other super-patriots who held power on a national or state level were using the self-same anti-Communist fire to discredit and dishonor thousands more. Since most were more subtle than McCarthy --- not difficult --- they operated to fracture the Republic, a villainy from which the country still suffers. J. Edgar Hoover, Pat McCarran, Rep. Francis Walter, Lewis Strauss (of the Atomic Energy Commission) ... plus hundreds of state and local officials (Washington State and California being especially egregious examples) played havoc with democracy.

While the rest of us, including Wicker, were deploring the antics of Joe McCarthy, we now realize that it was mostly a sideshow. The ruinators were operating in the shadows. McCarthy engendered notoriety, scorn, a sense of injustice, and, finally, his own demise. Hoover, McCarran, et al, unimpeded, destroyed careers, ruined lives, and perverted the once-enduring sense of American fair play.

§     §     §

Wicker is a heroic reporter. During the riot at Attica Prison in 1971, he ceased (more or less) being a reporter for the New York Times and became witness to a disaster orchestrated by the then-governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller. After some dallying and half-hearted negotiations with the prisoners, the state police were ordered in, and there came what Wicker later termed "a turkey shoot." Nineteen prisoners and hostages were massacred; over a hundred more were wounded. Later, much later, the families of those who were butchered were awarded several hundred million dollars by the courts.

Rockefeller's victory was a short one, for Wicker's A Time to Die wonderfully showed the governor to be a hen-hearted manipulator, one who, without hesitation, squandered the lives of too many innocents. This fatuous glad-hander, who bought his way into politics, is now, let us hope, roasting on some divine spit somewhere.

The miracle of Wicker was that he had been nursed in the tepid bosom of the New York Times, and yet rose above that "non-judgmental" world and actually reported with heart a heart-breaking drama. His anger, as shown in A Time to Die, was noble, and finely expressed.

Shooting Star, for all its virtues, has the taste of Grub Street: we have here nothing more than refried beans and old potatoes. That McCarthy reigned, and reigned ignobly, is now universally acknowledged. The mystery is not that he garnered the power of being a two-term Senator, and used it, and used it wretchedly. No, the mystery is that his fall did not take down with it, as it should have, the Hoovers and the McCarrens and the Walters.

Worse, in this slim volume, Wicker himself shows that he has drifted into his twilight years with far too much cynicism.

He entertains the specious thought that, during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1953, Joseph Welch may have faked his magnificent shoot-out with the Senator.

This is the exact transcript, taken from the Times of 10 June 1954:

    MR. WELCH - Senator McCarthy I think until this moment ---

    SENATOR MCCARTHY - Just a minute. Let me ask, Jim --- will you get the news story to the effect that this man belongs to this Communist front organization.

    MR. WELCH - I wlll tell you that he belonged to it.

    SENATOR MCCARTHY - Will you get the citations --- order the citations showing that this was the legal arm of the Communist party and the length of time that he belonged and the fact that he was recommended by Mr. Welch? I think that should be in the record.

    MR. WELCH - Senator, you won't need anything in the record when I finish telling you this. Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.

    Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. When I decided to work for this committee I asked Jim St. Clair, who sits on my right, to be my first assistant. I said to Jim: "Pick somebody in the firm to work under you that you would like."

    He chose Fred Fisher and they came down on an afternoon plane. That night when we had taken a little stab at trying to see what the case was about, Fred Fisher and Jim St. Clair and I went to dinner together.

    I then said to these two young men: "Boys, I don't know anything about you except I've always liked you, but if there's anything funny in the life of either one of you that would hurt anybody in this case, you speak up quick."

    And Fred Fisher said: "Mr. Welch, when I was in the law school and for a period of months after I belonged to the Lawyer's Guild" as you have suggested, Senator.

    He went on to say, "I am the secretary of the Young Republicans' League with the son of the Massachusetts Governor and I have the respect and admiration of my community and I'm sure I have the respect and admiration of the twenty-five lawyers or so in Hale & Dorr [Mr. Welch's law firm.]"

    And I said, "Fred, I just don't think I'm going to ask you to work on the case. If I do, one of these days that will come out and go over national television and it will hurt like the dickens."

    So, Senator, I asked him to go back to Boston. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale & Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale & Dorr.

    It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar, needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I'm a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.

    SENATOR MCCARTHY - May I say that Mr. Welch talks about this being cruel and reckless. He was just baiting --- he has been baiting Mr. Cohn here for hours, requesting that Mr. Cohn before sundown get out of any department of the Government anyone who was serving the Communist cause.

    Now, I just give this man's record, and I want to say, Mr. Welch, that it has been labeled long before he became a member as early as 1944.

    MR. WELCH - Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyer's Guild.

    SENATOR MCCARTHY - Let me finish this.

    MR. WELCH - And Mr. Cohn nods his head at me. I did you, I think, no personal injury, Mr. Cohn.

    MR. COHN - No, sir.

    MR. WELCH - I meant to do you no personal injury and if I did, I beg your pardon. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

    SENATOR MCCARTHY - I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch.

    MR. WELCH - I'll say it hurts.

    SENATOR MCCARTHY - May I say, Mr. Chairman, as a point of personal privilege, that I'd like to finish this.

    MR. WELCH - Senator, I think it hurts you too

Any of us who watched his bubbling-over of anger at the Senator's casual cruelty know that this dramatic twelve-minute scene was the Real McCoy. That Wicker may think otherwise taints not only his book, but a journalist's career of many years replete with acceptance, dignity, and truth.

--- Walter Winney

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