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Joseph McCarthy and the Force of Political Falsehoods

At the start of 1950, Joseph McCarthy’s political future did not look promising. McCarthy had been elected senator from Wisconsin in 1946, after switching his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and running as a decorated Marine veteran with the nickname Tail Gunner Joe. Even then, he had a reputation as a scofflaw. He had exaggerated his war record. He first ran for Senate (and lost) while he was still in uniform, which was against Army regulations, and he ran his second Senate campaign while he was a sitting judge, a violation of his oath. Questions had been raised about whether he had dodged his taxes and where his campaign funds had come from.

When McCarthy got to Washington, he became known as a tool of business interests, accepting a loan from Pepsi-Cola in exchange for working to end sugar rationing (he paid it back), and money from a construction company in exchange for opposing funding for public housing (which he eventually voted for). He plainly had no ethical or ideological compass, and most of his colleagues regarded him as a troublemaker, a loudmouth, and a fellow entirely lacking in senatorial politesse.

So when, in 1950, Lincoln’s birthday came around, a time of year when the Republican Party traditionally sent its elected officials out to speak at fund-raisers around the country, McCarthy was assigned to venues where it was clearly hoped that he would attract little notice. His first stop was the Ohio County Republican Women’s Club, in Wheeling, West Virginia, then a diehard Democratic state.

McCarthy didn’t know what he was going to talk about (he never planned very far ahead), so he brought notes for a couple of speeches: one about housing for veterans, and one, consisting mostly of clippings cobbled together by a speechwriter, about Communists in the government. McCarthy had seemingly had very little to do with that second speech, but he decided to go with it.

It is not known exactly what McCarthy said in Wheeling, and he later claimed that he couldn’t find his copy of the speech. But a local paper reported him as having waved a piece of paper on which, he said, were the names of two hundred and five Communists working in the State Department. The story was picked up by the Associated Press, and soon it was everywhere.

McCarthy had, in fact, no such list. He did not have even a single name. He may have calculated that a dinner speech at a women’s club in West Virginia was a safe place to try out the “I have in my hand” gimmick, and, somewhat to his surprise, it worked. In subsequent appearances on his Lincoln’s-birthday circuit, he gave the same speech, though the numbers changed. In Reno, the list had fifty-seven names. It didn’t matter. He had grabbed the headlines, and that was all he cared about. He would dominate them for the next four and a half years. Wheeling was McCarthy’s Trump Tower escalator. He tossed a match and started a bonfire.

Read entire article at The New Yorker