On Feb. 9, 1950, Joseph McCarthy, a junior senator from Wisconsin, stunned the nation — and stoked the paranoia of the Cold War — when he alleged that there were 205 spies working within the U.S. State Department. It was the beginning of a four-year anti-communist, anti-gay crusade in which McCarthy would charge military leaders, diplomats, teachers and professors with being traitors.
Author Larry Tye chronicles McCarthy's infamous smear campaign in the new book Demagogue. He describes the Republican senator as an "an opportunist and a cynic" who deliberately preyed on public fears.
"His tactics included playing the press brilliantly," Tye says. "He understood that if you lobbed one bombshell and that [proved] to be a fraud, rather than waiting for the press the next day to expose it as a fraud, he had a fresh bombshell ready to go."
Many of the people McCarthy accused lost their jobs. Others went to prison. Wyoming Sen. Lester Hunt killed himself in his Senate office after McCarthy and his allies tried to blackmail him into resigning. In 1954, McCarthy's campaign finally ended when the U.S. Senate voted to censure him.
More than 70 years later, Tye draws a parallel between McCarthy's tactics and President Trump's divisive rhetoric. He notes that McCarthy's chief legal counsel, Roy Cohn, served as Trump's lawyer and mentor in the 1970s. But beyond that, he says, both McCarthy and Trump are "bullies" who exploit fears and "point fingers when they're attacked."
"If there's any lesson to be learned from Joe McCarthy, it is that we are no less vulnerable to demagogues in our midst than Russia or than Italy or than Brazil," Tye says. "We've got to learn from our history to recognize these bullies at an early point — and to understand how to stand up to them."
On McCarthy's initial claim that communist spies were working inside the State Department
His crusade was launched one night in February 1950, in an out-of-the-way community, Wheeling, W.Va., and Joe McCarthy was there to deliver the famous Republican speech on the night of Abraham Lincoln's birthday. ... Joe McCarthy went there that night with the briefcase that contained two speeches and he wasn't sure which one to give until the last minute. One was a snoozer of a speech on national housing policy, and had he delivered that speech that night, you and I wouldn't be here 70 years talking about him.
Instead, he pulled the other speech out of his briefcase and it was a barn burner on anti-communism and it was the speech that launched his crusade. ... I think it was a matter of opportunism when he started out this crusade. He was looking for any issue that would give him the limelight. He wasn't sure until the last second which issue that might be, only when he got the response that he did that night, which was within two days, every newspaper in America put Joe McCarthy and his charges of 205 spies in the State Department, they put those stories on Page 1. Joe McCarthy was off and running and he never turned back.
On how McCarthy decided who he would target
When he stood up in the first famous speech in Wheeling, W.Va., and waved around a sheet of paper saying he had in his hands the names of 205 spies at the State Department, those were, in fact, recycled versions of lists that were old and the people often didn't work at the State Department anymore. ... He waved the list around. But any time a reporter said, "We want to see that," he said, "I left it in my briefcase. I left it on the plane." He had an excuse for everything. And some people said that he actually came up with his list by tripping around in the dark and just picking up any piece of paper he could, because they had so little basis in fact.
On how McCarthy didn't necessarily believe his own rhetoric at first
At the beginning McCarthy ... clearly didn't believe what he was saying. And he had fun with it, waving around the sheets, saying he had this list in his hand when he knew he didn't have a list in his hand. Calling up everybody from J. Edgar Hoover to friends in the media after he created this firestorm, saying, "You've got to help me come up with some evidence to prove the things that I've said." He was the cynic. He was an opportunist, and he knew that he was embellishing, if not outright lying. But by the end, I am convinced that Joe McCarthy actually believed his own rhetoric. If you say often enough that there are spies in the State Department or that refugees coming across the border are ruining America, if you say it often enough, you might actually begin to believe it. And I'm convinced by the end Joe McCarthy was a true believer in his own opportunistically created cause.
On why McCarthy targeted people who were gay
He said he targeted gay people because he said their being gay, and their being closeted, and their being in government, made them a risk of the Soviets turning them ... threatening [them] with exposure, and that that would make them spill secrets. The fact was that most of the people that he was targeting were reliable citizens, that if anybody was subject to that kind of blackmail, it was Joe McCarthy himself who had endless secrets: His gambling, his drinking, all kinds of things that made him especially vulnerable. And his going after gays was just a convenient scapegoat, the same way his going after leftists was.
On what exclusive access to medical records revealed about McCarthy's alcoholism
He had always been a heavy drinker. And you can see in the records of his closed-door hearings that there was a different Joe McCarthy who was showing himself in the morning sessions and then after a lunch where he would generally have a hamburger, a raw onion and whiskey. In the afternoon sessions, he was more irritable. He was more likely to give lectures and berate witnesses. So we knew that even in his heyday as a senator, in the heyday of his crusade, that he had had a drinking issue.
But after he was condemned by the Senate in December of 1954, the drinking got out of control. And that's always been speculated, but we can now see in his medical records, his doctors documented the rising level of his alcohol consumption, the fact that he would get delirium tremens — the DTs — when he would come into the hospital. And in the end, while the coroner listed as the official cause of death as "acute hepatitis," and while the press repeated that as what killed him, we now know that what killed him was his drinking.
On how McCarthy's career ended in his condemnation
The hearings ended by ending Joe McCarthy's career. They gave his fellow senators the courage to finally take him on. In December of that year, 1954, the Senate, in a very rare move, formally condemned him. And that was the end of Joe McCarthy's political career. And it spelled a beginning of a downward spiral in his own life that ended with him tragically dying three years later. ... By the time he died in 1957, McCarthy was an afterthought to the press, to the public and certainly to his fellow senators. He hadn't been on the front page [in] forever. He was likely facing a reelection loss even if he even ran for reelection in Wisconsin. And he had a movement named after him that became the kind of smear: the word McCarthyism that he understood and couldn't spin away.
Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. If you want to understand Trump's rise to power, you should consider the tactics used by Senator Joe McCarthy. My guest Larry Tye says Trump owes a lot to McCarthy's playbook. Tye is the author of a new book about McCarthy called "Demagogue," which Tye describes as a book about America's love affair with bullies. There's a direct line between McCarthy and Trump through Roy Cohn, who served as the legal counsel to the subcommittee McCarthy chaired and later became Donald Trump's lawyer when Trump started establishing his business in Manhattan.
In the 1950s when McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, headed the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he hunted down people who he alleged were communists, smearing people in the government, the military, schools and colleges, the Voice of America, Hollywood and others. He accused them of being part of a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. His victims lost their jobs. Many went to prison. Some committed suicide.
Tye decided to write about Cohn after writing a biography of Robert Kennedy who got his start in politics working for McCarthy. Tye got exclusive access to McCarthy's medical records and family papers and took the first deep dive into transcripts of McCarthy's subcommittee meetings that were not held in public.
Larry Tye, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to start by asking you to describe what made Joe McCarthy infamous because a lot of our listeners probably are not familiar with him. You know, 1950s was a pretty long time ago.
LARRY TYE: Yeah. So Joe McCarthy did something that none of the other redbaiting members of Congress or elsewhere did at that era. He understood that rather than just saying there was traitorous activity going on in places like the State Department, if you named the supposed traitors and counted them, that would have this cowboy effect with the public in making people stand up and take notice. And from day one when he launched his crusade, he did it in a way that only brilliant demagogues could do to capture the public imagination and play on public fears.
GROSS: And describe some of his tactics for smearing people when he accused them of being communists. And we should mention most of the people he accused were not communists.
TYE: So his tactics included playing the press brilliantly. He understood that if you released your most damning information out in the hinterlands charging that the State Department had 205 spies in it - if you did it out in the hinterlands, the reporters were not going to know who to call at the State Department. They were not going to be able to get the kind of responses that you would hope for any story. And he did it five minutes before their deadline, knowing that that was the way to ensure that his side of the story would make Page 1 today and any responses would come tomorrow on Page 24.
He understood that if you lobbed one bombshell and that had proven to be a fraud, rather than waiting for the press the next day to expose it as a fraud, he had a fresh bombshell ready to go. He understood that when the news was bad, you blamed the newsmen. He understood basically every tactic that every demagogue had used prior to Joe McCarthy, only he fine-tuned them in a way that he became the archetype for every demagogue that came after.
GROSS: How did he go about deciding who to target?
TYE: Generally, he looked at all the old lists that were out there. And any way that he could recycle it, he would do that. So when he stood up in his firm - first famous speech in Wheeling, W.Va., and waved around a sheet of paper saying he had in his hands the names of 205 spies at the State Department, those were, in fact, recycled versions of lists that were old and the people, often, didn't work at the State Department anymore - that were often proven in the past to not have been accurate listings and that were lists that he never showed to anybody.
He waved the list around. But any time a reporter said, we want to see that, he said I left it in my briefcase; I left it on the plane. He had an excuse for everything, and some people said that he actually came up with his list by tripping around in the dark and just picking up any piece of paper he could because they had so little basis in fact.
GROSS: And he not only smeared people who he alleged were communists, he'd ask those people at the subcommittee, when they were questioned, to name names. And if you didn't cooperate, then what happened?
TYE: So if you did cooperate, it didn't help you much. And if you didn't cooperate, he would threaten you with Justice Department prosecution. And that, at the time, to people who came in from low-level clerk jobs or people who weren't used to that kind of intimidation, was really imposing. And the fact is, though, none of his cases ever stood up. The Justice Department generally ignored his requests to prosecute. The prosecutions didn't stand up.
That is not to say that there were never spies in the State Department and other agencies. It is to say that by the time Joe McCarthy came along, all the 24-karat spies, like Julius Rosenberg, were long gone. And the people he picked up on were people who weren't spies or who may have had a sister or a brother-in-law who had done something in their college days that made them somewhat suspect. They were warmed-over facts and things that just never stood any test of time or prosecution.
GROSS: Gay people became his target, too - gay people in government, in any kind of really visible position. Why did he target gay people?
TYE: So he said he targeted gay people because he said their being gay and their being closeted and their being in government made them a risk of the Soviets turning them - the Soviets threatening with exposure and that that would make them spill secrets. The fact was that most of the people that he was targeting were reliable citizens that if anybody was subject to that kind of blackmail, it was Joe McCarthy himself, who had endless secrets - his gambling, his drinking - all kinds of things that made him especially vulnerable. And his going after gays was just a convenient scapegoat the same way his going after leftists was.
GROSS: You compare Joe McCarthy's demagoguery to Donald Trump - and they do have a direct line connecting them through Roy Cohn, who was McCarthy's aide and legal counsel to his subcommittee and then became Trump's lawyer later on. What are some of the connections in terms of tactics and power that you see between Trump and McCarthy?
TYE: So with both of them, in lieu of solutions, bullies like them point fingers. When they're attacked, they aim a wrecking ball at their assailants. When one manufactured charge against the supposed enemy is exposed as hollow, they lob a fresh bombshell. And when the news is bad and you can't charm the newsmen, you attack them.
One last thing that stood out to me - a famous quote of the 2016 Trump campaign where Donald Trump boasted to his supporters, I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters. Exactly 62 years before, polling pioneer George Gallup - I think chillingly - penned a similar prediction about Joe McCarthy supporters. Gallup said, even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, they would probably still go along with him. And to me, that is one more example of how eerily Donald Trump mirrors Joe McCarthy with, as you mentioned, Roy Cohn as a flesh and blood through line between the two.
GROSS: McCarthy, like Trump, used ideological issues and fear of the enemy. But both of them seem to be motivated by power, not necessarily by ideology or passionate political beliefs. McCarthy, like Trump, changed parties. McCarthy changed parties several times - right? - going back and forth between Republican and Democrat.
TYE: So he did. McCarthy ran for office the first time as a Democrat. He lost badly. He realized that in that race for district attorney in rural Wisconsin, there was no way he was ever going to be elected as a Democrat. So he never said exactly when he did it, but maybe sometime in the middle of the night, he went and quietly changed his registration to Republican. He went from being a - not just a Democrat but an ardent FDR, New Deal Democrat to being not just a Republican but the leader of the conservative wing of the Wisconsin Republican Party. They were called stalwart Republicans. And he did it the same way Donald Trump did, showing absolutely no shame and, I think, having absolutely no master plan other than accumulating and holding onto power.
GROSS: How did communism become McCarthy's issue?
TYE: His crusade was launched one night in February 1950 in an out-of-the-way community - Wheeling, W.V. And Joe McCarthy was there to deliver the famous Republican speech on the night of Abraham Lincoln's birthday. And prominent Republicans got to speak in places like New York and Boston and Philadelphia. Ones like Joe McCarthy who were backbenchers who looked like they were on their way to being defeated after just one term ended up in places like Wheeling, W.V. Joe McCarthy went there that night with a briefcase that contained two speeches, and he wasn't sure which one to give until the last minute. One was a snoozer of a speech on national housing policy. And had he delivered that speech that night, you and I wouldn't be here 70 years talking about him.
Instead, he pulled the other speech out of his briefcase, and it was a barnburner on anticommunism. And it was the speech that launched his crusade. And I tell you that backstory because I think it was a matter of opportunism. When he started out this crusade, he was looking for any issue that would give him the limelight. He wasn't sure until the last second which issue that might be. Only when he got the response that he did that night, which was within two days, every newspaper in America put Joe McCarthy and his charges of 205 spies in the State Department. They put those stories on page one. Joe McCarthy was off and running, and he never turned back.
GROSS: Yeah. This is the speech that had the famous line that you quoted before - I have in my hand a list of 205, a list of names that were made known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party who are nevertheless still working and shaping policy in the State Department. So that got a foothold in the press, and he ran with it. Is that what you think happened?
TYE: So it did get a foothold in the press. I think it surprised him as much as it surprised the State Department and anybody else. And that was precisely the foothold he had spent the first three years of his time in the Senate looking for and never been able to find. And it was just irresistible to a guy like that.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Tye. He's the author of the new book "Demagogue" about Joe McCarthy. We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Larry Tye, author of a new book about Sen. Joe McCarthy and his smear campaign against people he accused as being communists in the 1950s. Thousands of people unjustly lost their jobs. Many went to prison.
Why did people in the Senate - why did people on his subcommittee go along with him?
TYE: They went along with him because they watched the lesson of the first guy who stood up to him. That was a senator from Maryland named Millard Tydings. And Tydings led a subcommittee investigation of Joe McCarthy and his charges. Tydings concluded that McCarthy was, as he put it, a fraud and a hoax. And Tydings took on Joe McCarthy. Joe McCarthy, the next election that November - this was in early 1950s, shortly after McCarthy had given his speech in Wheeling. Tydings was up for re-election that November and looked like a shoo-in. He was a really powerful senator, and nobody ever challenged him.
Joe McCarthy came up with a know-nothing candidate that challenged Millard Tydings. Joe McCarthy orchestrated behind the scenes the money and the smear to go after Tydings. And Tydings lost. And that lesson, like a sledgehammer, made its impact felt in the Senate. People hadn't paid attention to Joe McCarthy before then. They knew after that that if you took on Joe McCarthy, you could expect a bulldozer coming your way.
GROSS: You got access to family papers. Tell us something interesting that they revealed about McCarthy that you did not know and that you think other people did not know.
TYE: So maybe one of the most surprising things was while those papers substantiated in excruciating detail all the things that McCarthy had done wrong and that sort of reinforced our image of him, it also showed that at critical points, he was telling the truth. But because he was such an embellisher, if not a liar, nobody believed he was telling the truth. And if I could just take a minute and tell you one story about that, Joe McCarthy had run for office in his first Senate campaign, calling himself Tail Gunner Joe. And he had basically made himself out to be a war hero at a moment when being a war hero really sold electorally. The press didn't believe that. The press knew that Joe McCarthy's official assignment when he was in the Marines in the South Pacific was as a land base intelligence agent. And they took him on and said, that's a joke. National television did an hour-long documentary making fun of Joe McCarthy by calling him Tail Gunner Joe, and that became his tag in a way that he had never intended it to be. Well, now we have the records that were there for 60 years under lock and key, and those records contain his real-time handwritten personal diary when he was a soldier in the South Pacific fighting for the Marines. And those records document in detail every flight that he went up in as a tail gunner. He volunteered for those flights. He came under fire.
And it's not just trusting his diary, but it is accounts from his squad mates who told how McCarthy, at great risk to himself when he could've stayed safely on the ground, was up there as a tail gunner under enemy fire. And the idea that Joe McCarthy, about a critical chapter of his biography, was telling the truth when we assumed he was a liar I found interesting. But I found equally interesting all the things that are corroborated about what he was doing. He was keeping secret files on his enemies, people like syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, who was the journalist who went after him earliest and most aggressively. And McCarthy was following everything that Pearson did.
GROSS: Tell us more about the secret files that he had.
TYE: They were files that he had with his investigators going out there and gathering dirt on every enemy he had. And they - files one after another were marked in the most top secret category that the FBI had. And the files make clear that people in the FBI, probably starting with J. Edgar Hoover and definitely going down to senior people who would've had access to the most top secret material - that those materials were leaked to McCarthy. They were leaked to him on his enemies from reporters to other people he was charging with being communists. And he should never have had these files. And he was breaking precisely the rules, the anti-espionage rules that he was accusing other people of breaking, by having secret files. We now know that he could've been indicted himself for the files he had in his office records.
GROSS: I'm wondering if the files just had dirt on people that you could basically use to smear them or blackmail them or that the files actually had damning information about them being communists since so many of the people who were accused of being communists were not.
TYE: Yes. So the files had damning information only because Joe McCarthy made it into damning information. It may have had - in the case, for instance, of a guy named Reed Harris who was a senior official at the Voice of America, the files had information about his activities with leftist groups. But those activities were 20 years before he got to the State Department. They were things that he did in college, things that he had admitted were flirtations that he might not have had in later life with ideologies that McCarthy could paint as showing him to be a communist.
McCarthy used that information to get Reed Harris fired. And he went after Harris in such a way that not long after Harris had to leave government service, Harris' wife killed herself in what the children today say was a clear cause and effect based on being terrorized by Joe McCarthy.
GROSS: Well, we need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. My guest is Larry Tye. His new book about Sen. Joe McCarthy is called "Demagogue." We'll talk more after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "DEAR OLD STOCKHOLM")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Larry Tye, author of the new book "Demagogue" about Joe McCarthy, the Republican senator from Wisconsin who in the 1950s waged a war against alleged communists in America's government, military, schools, the entertainment industry and more, ruining thousands of lives in the process. This is the period during which McCarthy chaired the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy died in 1957. Tye got exclusive access to McCarthy's medical records and family records. Tye is the first to take a deep dive into transcripts of subcommittee hearings that were not held in public.
Reading McCarthy's personal papers, did you get a sense of whether he really believed that communist spies in America posed the kind of existential threat that he was telling the American public that it posed? Or could you tell from his papers that maybe this was just a power play for him and that he knew he was smearing people who were not guilty of what he was saying they were guilty of?
TYE: So the answer is yes to both of the ways you phrase that. The answer is yes, that at the beginning, McCarthy was an opportunist and a cynic, and he clearly didn't believe what he was saying. And he had fun with it - waving around the sheet, saying he had this list in his hand when he knew he didn't have a list in his hand. Calling up everybody from J. Edgar Hoover to friends in the media after he created this firestorm, saying, you've got to help me come up with some evidence to prove the things that I've said. He was a cynic. He was an opportunist. And he knew that he was embellishing, if not outright lying. But by the end, I am convinced that Joe McCarthy actually believed his own rhetoric. If you say often enough that there are spies in the State Department or that refugees coming across the border are ruining America - if you say it often enough, you might actually begin to believe it. And I'm convinced by the end, Joe McCarthy was a true believer in his own opportunistically created cause.
GROSS: So let's talk about the medical records that you got exclusive access to. McCarthy had a lot of problems. He had bad sinusitis, bad GI problems - gastrointestinal problems - bad back problems, scoliosis, chronic pain. And he was treated with opioids. That's what the doctors prescribed for him, opioids and penicillin. Did he become addicted to opioids?
TYE: He didn't become addicted to opioids. The records show that he was given high levels of narcotics, as was the standard treatment then. But there is no suggestion in any of his records that he was addicted to that. But he had a different kind of addiction.
GROSS: And that was alcohol.
TYE: That was alcohol. And it was something - he had always been a heavy drinker. And you can see in the records of his closed-door hearings that there was a different Joe McCarthy who was showing himself in the morning sessions - and then after a lunch, where he would generally have a hamburger, a raw onion and whiskey. In the afternoon sessions, he was more irritable. He was more likely to give lectures and berate witnesses. So we knew that even in his heyday as a senator, in the heyday of his crusade, that he had had a drinking issue.
But after he was condemned by the Senate in December of 1954, the drinking got out of control. And that's always been speculated, but we can now see in his medical records his doctors documented the rising level of his alcohol consumption, the fact that he would get delirium tremens, the DT's, when he would come into the hospital. And in the end, while the coroner listed as the official cause of death acute hepatitis and while the press repeated that as what killed him, we now know that what killed him was his drinking.
GROSS: His Marine Corps medical records include that he displayed a loss of energy. He was nervous and tense. I mean, who wouldn't be in war? But I'm wondering if there were signs in his medical records of what would now be interpreted as depression or anxiety.
TYE: So I think there were signs in his medical records and signs in his behavior, without being an armchair psychiatrist about this, of manic depression that we can see in the transcripts of his closed-door hearings and in the videotapes of his open hearings, the manic phase. And he was clearly just out of control a lot of times in the hearings, but he would also have low points. And everybody who I've shown this to who understands psychiatry says that today, doctors would likely prescribe and be able to treat it as bipolar disease.
GROSS: When you say he was out of control in some of the hearings, what do you mean?
TYE: I mean that he wanted to be the crusading senator who was exposing communism, and instead, he looked like the town bully. He would berate people, especially in the closed-door hearings, calling them Fifth Amendment communists if they tried to use the Fifth Amendment to not have to testify against themselves. He would accuse them of all kinds of activities, from guilt by having the wrong sister- or brother-in-law, guilt by early indiscretion, guilt by everything other than proven guilt of the charges he was bringing against them.
And he just seemed like in his demeanor and in his words to be a guy who was unhinged. And I think he was - ironically, you would expect somebody to be more controlled and less berating when he was in a closed-door session because he wasn't performing for the print reporters or for the cameras. But in fact, Joe McCarthy reversed that. It was when he was behind closed doors that he seemed most willing to bully the witnesses who came before him.
And I think he was using those closed-door sessions as a way of deciding who could stand up to his bullying. And the people who could best stand up to it never showed up in a public hearing. And those who were best able to respond to what he was saying weren't the kinds of patsies he was looking for to bring in front of the public cameras.
GROSS: Did the other senators on the subcommittee behave differently behind closed doors when there were hearings?
TYE: So that's a great question, and I'd be able to answer it better if there were other senators with him in those closed-door hearings. But generally, in violation of Senate tradition, the hearings were one-man hearings with Joe McCarthy presiding. And to ensure that that was the case, he would often take the hearings on the road, where he knew fellow senators on his subcommittee couldn't join him. And even worse than the one-man hearings was when he would leave, it was poorly trained and sophomoric staffers like Roy Cohn who often leapt in to take over the badgering of witnesses on McCarthy's behalf.
GROSS: Did the Democrats on McCarthy's subcommittee do anything to try to stop him?
TYE: They, at various points, stood up and tried to challenge him. But in terms of truly taking him on, they went along with their minority leader at the time, Lyndon Johnson, in feeling like they were going to wait it out and that it was the Republicans who were going to have to take him on and bring him down. The Democrats watched what had happened to Millard Tydings when McCarthy barreled into his Maryland Senate district and beat him, and they watched McCarthy effectively campaign against enough of their colleagues that they decided they sure as heck weren't going to be the ones to sacrifice their careers to bring down the bully.
GROSS: So they were afraid.
TYE: They were petrified.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Tye. His new book about Joe McCarthy is called "Demagogue." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOACIR SANTOS' "EXCERTO NO. 1")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Larry Tye, author of a new book about Sen. Joe McCarthy and his smear campaign against people who he accused of being communists in the 1950s. Thousands of people unjustly lost their jobs. Many went to prison.
McCarthy's demise was the Army-McCarthy hearings, in which he went after the Army. What was he accusing the Army of? And this was in 1953.
TYE: He said that at a critical Army communications base in Fort Monmouth, N.J. - he said there were spies there. He said there were remnants of the Rosenberg spy network, and he started naming names and pointing fingers.
GROSS: And you write that his antipathy to the military dates back to when he was in the South Pacific during World War II when he called officers who were in charge mental midgets. What was his attitude toward the military when he was in it, and how did that carry over to the hearings?
TYE: So when he was in the Marines in the South Pacific, his attitude was he had respect and admiration and friendship with his fellow low-level noncommissioned officers - privates, others who were with him. And he felt that the brass were, as you said, mental midgets, morons, people who were letting the troops down. And he defied military rules in everything from bringing in liquor and other contraband that he would find ways of procuring and giving it or selling it to his fellow soldiers to, at the end of his time in the Marines, actually campaigning for the Senate from his South Pacific island.
He had banners strung along his tent and his Jeep saying McCarthy for Senate. This was in violation of very explicit edicts that you weren't supposed to use your time in the military to campaign for office. And that was the kind of attitude that McCarthy would show throughout his career in terms of - rules were not meant for him to observe. And he was the one, he felt, who could understand what was really going on in complicated bureaucracies like the State Department, like the Voice of America and, most of all, like the U.S. armed services.
GROSS: So what was the turning point in the Army-McCarthy hearings, where the hearings started working against McCarthy instead of in his favor?
TYE: History, again, tells us the turning point was when a Boston lawyer for the Army named Joe Welch asked McCarthy - when McCarthy accused Welch's young associate of having had been a member of a left-leaning legal group, Welch said in a famous line, have you no sense of decency at long last, senator? And that was supposedly the turning point.
I think the turning point came much more gradually and earlier, when McCarthy looked like the town rowdy, the town bully in the hearings. And I think much of America was losing faith in Joe McCarthy. I think Joe Welch, in addition to being a brilliant lawyer, was a brilliant performer. He had been waiting for the perfect moment to deliver his have you no decency line. And I think by the time he asked that line, all of America could have chimed in via their TV sets, have you no sense of decency, senator?
GROSS: Do McCarthy's personal papers have anything to say about how he reacted to that, how he reacted when he knew he was losing?
TYE: So I think his papers tell us that as he started losing the support - we've got to remember that he began the Army-McCarthy hearings in early 1954 with a full 50% of America backing him, thinking he was a great guy. The only politician in America who was more popular than McCarthy at the beginning of those hearings was President Eisenhower. By the end of the hearings in the summer of 1954, McCarthy's numbers had plummeted from 50% to 34%.
And his papers and everything else, including his medical records, suggested that when he started losing this public support, when he started being abandoned by his friends and his colleagues, he went to pieces. By went to pieces, I mean that he started drinking more. By went to pieces, I mean that he started relying more on the few people who still paid attention to him, including his wife. And by went to pieces, I mean that he knew by the end of 1954, when the Senate formally condemned him, that his political life was over. And I think he had given up at that point.
GROSS: So how did the Army-McCarthy hearings end?
TYE: The hearings ended by both sides being embarrassed, but the hearings didn't do any lasting damage to the U.S. Army. The hearings ended by ending Joe McCarthy's career. They gave his fellow senators the courage to finally take him on. In December of that year - 1954 - the Senate, in a very rare move, formally condemned him. And that was the end of Joe McCarthy's political career, and it spelled a beginning of a downward spiral in his own life that ended with him tragically dying three years later in 1957.
GROSS: What was McCarthy's reputation when he died in 1957?
TYE: By the time he died in 1957, Joe McCarthy was an afterthought to the press, to the public and certainly to his fellow senators. He hadn't been on the front page forever. He was likely facing a reelection loss if he even ran for reelection in Wisconsin. And he had a movement named after him that became the kind of smear, the word McCarthyism, that he understood and couldn't spin away.
GROSS: You write in your book that a lot of people thought America was immune from demagogues, and then McCarthy came along. My impression from the book is that you think Trump fits into that line of demagogues. What do you think that McCarthy - and now maybe Trump - says about America?
TYE: It says that America has very real fears that we experience. And whether that fear is the threat of a Soviet empire or the fear of economic inequality in this country, those are real fears. It says that there are going to be charismatic personalities who come along at different points in our history who play to that fear of what the Soviets were doing by making unsubstantiated charges, by what spies were doing riddled supposedly throughout the U.S. government or that 70 years later, somebody's going to come along and play to our fears of economic dislocation by pointing the finger at a convenient scapegoat like refugees coming across the border.
And it says that if there's any lesson to be learned from Joe McCarthy, it is that we are no less vulnerable to demagogues in our midst than Russia or than Italy or than Brazil and that we've got to learn from our history to recognize these bullies at an early point and to understand how to stand up to them.
GROSS: Did writing this book leave you discouraged because America can produce and enable a demagogue like McCarthy, or did it leave you encouraged because McCarthy saw his demise and history has deemed him a villain?
TYE: So this book left me with my normal instinct of being an optimist. I think that, as troubling as those four years - nearly five years - of McCarthy's reign was, he, like every demagogue who came before and everyone who closely followed him, did themselves in. And I'm an optimist that we will continue to see through bullies like this. So a dark story, in fact, to me, is a good news story.
GROSS: Larry Tye, it's been a pleasure to have you back on the show. Thank you so much.
TYE: It was really fun to be on with you, Terry.
GROSS: Larry Tye's new book about Joe McCarthy is called "Demagogue."
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GROSS: After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel "Want," about a couple with two children falling out of the middle class. This is FRESH AIR.
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