On Joe McCarthy, Washington Post Gets It Embarrassingly Wrong

The headline of Jonathan Zimmerman's article in the Washington Post, "How Trump finally turned Republicans against McCarthyism," alerted me to the possibility that Zimmerman has never spoken to a Republican in the wild.

The subhead, "After nearly 70 years, Republicans have stopped defending Joe McCarthy," confirmed my suspicions.  Zimmerman insists that the "new consensus" among Republicans is that "McCarthyism was, in fact, a massive, unpardonable assault on freedom, fairness and the rule of law."  This is nuts.  In reality, McCarthy's status among Republicans is higher now than it has been since his untimely death in 1957.

According to Zimmerman, President Trump "fired the first salvo" last summer when he compared the Mueller investigation to "an illegal Joseph McCarthy style Witch Hunt."  For all his virtues, Donald Trump may be the least typical Republican in America.  To further substantiate his claim, Zimmerman cites "two GOP congressional leaders," neither of whom he names or quotes, as having made a similar comparison.

The evidence that Zimmerman musters to show that support for McCarthy was strong until recently is, if possible, more feeble than his evidence for a new anti-McCarthy consensus.  In fact, it is so embarrassingly feeble that it further damages the Post's increasingly shaky reputation.

In the 1960s, for instance, Zimmerman claims, "Republicans stepped up their hero worship of McCarthy."  To support this claim, he quotes an obscure congressman telling a Republican gathering, "You and I are going to have to carry on the work of the great Sen. McCarthy."

What Zimmerman does not say is that Rep. Kenneth J. Merkel was speaking to a group of "friends and admirers" of McCarthy on the tenth anniversary of the senator's death in McCarthy's native Wisconsin, more specifically in Appleton, Wisconsin, the home of the John Birch society.  If Pulitzer gave out prizes for cherry-picking quotes, Zimmerman would be a contender.

To his humble credit, Zimmerman traces a 1975 quote in defense of McCarthy to a "gravesite commemoration," once again back in Appleton.  As to the person doing the commemorating, Zimmerman tells us only that he is a "GOP speaker."  A GOP speaker?  That's it?  I could find the quote nowhere but in his article.

In sum, Zimmerman uses two graveside quotes from obscure speakers, one unnamed, to represent the Republicans' "stepped up ... hero worship" for McCarthy in the 1960s and 1970s.  Zimmerman, by the way, is co-author of a book titled The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.  One can only imagine.

As counter-evidence, allow me to cite a Facebook posting of my own from last week.  Above parallel photos of Joe McCarthy and James Comey, each with his right hand raised, I wrote, "The difference between James Comey et al. and Joe McCarthy?  McCarthy's targets actually were colluding with the Russians. Time to retire the word 'McCarthyism.'"

Unlike Zimmerman, who teaches education at the University of Pennsylvania when not writing silly articles for the Post, I live on the border of two very red states, Kansas and Missouri.  For many years now, I have been interacting with Republicans in their native habitat on a regular basis.  Many of the responders to my post, perhaps most, are actual "friends," not just Facebook friends.  They are real people with real lives, not trolls or Russian bots.

To my surprise, 125 people "liked" my post, easily the record for a political post of mine on Facebook and about five times the norm. Some sample responses:

Everyone Joe accused of being a commie were in fact card carrying commies. Joe was right and he's been vindicated for going after all their leftist commie loving traitors.

I have been called vile things for pointing out the Joe was correct. Funny, that information is left out of the discussion.

I hate seeing people on the right, who should know better, talk about McCarthyism. The only problem with McCarthy is that he didn't get enough of them.

McCarthy was right and he was a hero.

McCarthyism was just anti-Communism against real Russian spies like Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and many other traitors in government.

After the USSR imploded, KGB files published as the Venona Papers, confirmed McCarthy's "unfounded" allegations. Google it.

Among the thirty or so comments were two that questioned McCarthy's tactics and one that rejected all the other comments.  This last one came from retired historian Thomas C. Reeves, the author of the 1982 book The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography.

Wrote Reeves, "Why not just read my definitive biography of the Senator?  The comments on this post range from error to the absurd."  Although now in his eighties, Reeves's prominent posting of a hot Melania Trump photo suggests that his juices are still flowing, and flowing in the right direction.

In 1982, Reeves's book was the definitive biography.  I read it when it came out and, like most Republicans, took little issue with it.  At the time, there was no effective counter-narrative in play.  That has changed.

The opening of the Soviet vaults after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the release of the Venona files in 1995 introduced reams of information that was not available in 1982.  Although Reeves is sticking to his guns, his is no longer the definitive take on McCarthy, at least not on the right.

Several of the posts on my Facebook page cite M. Stanton Evans's instant 2007 classic, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight against America's Enemies, as the must-read book.  I would agree.  I have read the 700-page Blacklisted twice.  No one but Reeves cites his own book.

Although Evans has since died, I suspect he and Reeves would have both rejected Zimmerman's thesis.  If anything, the Mueller report rehabilitated McCarthy among Republicans.  Unlike the Democratic witch hunt against Trump and friends, McCarthy targeted real witches.  More than ever, Republicans appreciate the difference.

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