Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Yes, the Press Might Do a Joe McCarthy on Trump; Just Not the Way You Think

I am not particularly impressed with protestations that the Fourth Estate is going to solve our Donald Trump problem by speaking truth to power, exposing his low, dishonest, and inflammatory rhetoric, and the filthy bigotry in which he traffics.

There’s a lot of people—a lot of voters—down in the sewer with Donald Trump.  Apparently the smell doesn’t bother them.

Nor do I hold out hope that elite opinion-makers like Thomas Friedman will lead the stampede of asses that will trample Trump into well-deserved oblivion.

And I do not have much patience with the trope that all the media needs to do is put on its big-boy pants and stick it to Donald Trump in the name of decency just like the press did to Joe McCarthy in the glorious days of Ed Murrow in 1954.

This hagiography is enshrined in George Clooney’s biopic of Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck (excellent film, by the way), which characterizes Murrow as having the courage to step forth and confront McCarthy with a scathing series of televised exposes in March 1954 when nobody else would.

Indeed, Murrow took up the cudgels in 1953 when few others were willing.  Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly openly characterized the famous See It Now reports as pre-planned advocacy, not reporting.  As quoted in Ralph Engelman’s biography, Friendlyvision: Fred Friendly and the Rise and Fall of Television Journalism, Friendly declared:

I think we were balancing how what we knew how to do well against what he did superbly well, which is to be a demagogue.  And I’m sorry we had to do it that way. But it was the challenge of a lifetime, a desperate moment for the country, and not to have used it because of a series of rules that we would apply to ourselves and that Senator McCarthy would abuse to the ultimate would have made history judge us very harshly. [Engelman, pg. 125]

McCarthy was a world-class creep and demagogue.  He was also an eager bottom-feeder in the murky waters of the American security state, which were lavishly chummed by J. Edgar Hoover with real and faux evidence to ensnare real, faux, potential, and imagined Communists.  Eventually McCarthy got big and intimidating enough to upset a lot of people.  Declaring the Democratic Party the “party of treason” and questioning the patriotism of two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was a start.  But I think just the start.

We can take it as a given that certain media outlets were determined to stick it to McCarthy.  But in deciding whether the media today has the mission and chops to properly identify an existential demagogic threat to the nation and righteously sh*tcan it, it would help to explore the assertion that CBS and prestige media were able to reach beyond its core audience of disgruntled Democrats and liberals to bring down Tailgunner Joe. 

For a more plausible alternative, try President Eisenhower and his anger at McCarthy’s attack on the Army, which started with a gaudy search for Communists in the Army Signal Corps laboratory at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

Ike apparently no like.

President Eisenhower initiated a secret campaign to nail McCarthy in the beginning of 1954.  The story was first told in the 1980s by Eisenhower staffer William Bragg Ewald in his book Who Killed Joe McCarthy?  It will be told in greater detail in 2016 by David Nichols of Southwestern College, Kansas, in an as yet untitled book based on the Eisenhower archives and other declassified sources.

Here’s what Nichols had to say in an excerpt posted by the National Archives:

Eisenhower carried off his anti-McCarthy operation by means of rigorous delegation to a handful of trusted subordinates; these included Chief of Staff Sherman Adams; Vice President Richard Nixon; Press Secretary James Hagerty; Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., and his deputy, William Rogers; Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the administration’s representative to the United Nations; and Assistant Secretary of Defense Fred A. Seaton, who collaborated with H. Struve Hensel, the Pentagon’s general counsel. While less intimate with the President, Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens and Army counsel John G. Adams played critical roles. These men were expected, like foot soldiers in war, to put their lives and reputations on the line to protect the President and extinguish the political influence of Joe McCarthy.

Yup, even that devoted anti-Communist Richard Nixon saw which way the wind was blowing and signed on to ratf*ck McCarthy.  And it looks like J. Edgar Hoover helped cut off McCarthy at the knees by repudiating a document McCarthy brandished during the Army hearings.

In January 1954 Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams instructed the Army’s Chief Counsel to write up a report describing the harassment of the Army instigated by McCarthy’s pit bull, Roy Cohn, in the matter of fellow staffer David Schine, with whom Cohn appears to have been infatuated.  By February, the job of preparing the report is in the hands of the Assistant Secretary of Defense and the General Counsel of the Army.

And then in early March, per Nichols…

Sherman Adams’s good friend, Vermont’s Republican Senator Ralph W. Flanders, ridiculed McCarthy in a speech on the Senate floor. Flanders words dripped with sarcasm: “He dons his war paint. He goes into his war dance. He emits his war whoops…”

Murrow quoted Flanders’ speech in his famous See It Now broadcast the same night . 

Murrow’s legendary program makes for interesting viewing.  

It was immediately recognized as a high-minded hit piece designed to show McCarthy at his least attractive.  One of the more ham-fisted segments shows an apparently juiced Tailgunner Joe, his comb-over sagging into a bedraggled spitcurl on his forehead, engaged in some dinner-speech blather.  As McCarthy struggles to keep his wits about him and finish his speech, the camera portentously pans to a rather naff mural behind him depicting George Washington in a heroic pose.  Compare and contrast, the message here.

I was struck by a clip he showed of Eisenhower energetically asserting his prerogative to handle executive branch loyalty issues without congressional committees (i.e. McCarthy) butting in.  Incongruously, the famously placid Eisenhower in his physical appearance and temperament strikingly resembled that famous shoe-banger Nikita Khrushchev. 

The worst thing Murrow comes up with is catching McCarthy lying (or as we’d say today, “perhaps intentionally misrepresenting”) the ACLU as a proscribed Communist organization while he bullyrags a State Department boffin for a book he wrote in the 1930s.

The program concludes with Murrow’s justly famous peroration. 

Then, per Nichols:

Those events set the stage for March 11, 1954. That day, on Eisenhower’s secret orders,Seaton released a 34-page, carefully edited account of the privileges sought for David Schine to key senators, representatives, and the press. The document ignited such a fire-storm of negative publicity that, on March 16, the McCarthy subcommittee agreed to hold televised hearings. McCarthy would temporarily step down as chair…

The hearings were broadcast by the fledgling ABC and DuMont networks with gavel-to-gavel coverage for 36 eye-glazing days.  It will be very interesting if Nichols’ book addresses the hows and whys of the collapse of McCarthy’s poll standing (from the 50s to the 30s) during the hearings for the understanding of modern onlookers.    

Here is a clip of the apparently cathartic “have you no decency?” slam from Judge Welch to the applause of the gallery.  The indecency in question was McCarthy hounding Welch over the issue of a member of his team that Welch had to send packing back to Boston because he had belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, an organization HUAC deemed a Communist front.  After the decency jab, Welch still had to deploy a hissy fit and end his examination in order to deflect McCarthy’s determined efforts to make hay out of the embarrassing incident, so it’s difficult for me to grasp how this was a decisive high-five moment for the anti-McCarthy team.  But apparently so.

Much more effective in my opinion are the cutaways to the mesmerizingly sinister apparition of Roy Cohn, who looks and writhes like a hagfish impatient to swim off and burrow into a welcoming corpse. 

On December 2, 1954, McCarthy was condemned by the Senate by a vote of 67 to 22.  This is usually reported as “censure” but it wasn’t, as the contemporary account in the New York Times made clear.  Richard Nixon presided over the session and finessed the adoption of the resolution.  It took a lot of finessing and some low comedy to deliver a satisfactory outcome in the evenly-split (44 Rs, 44 Ds, 1 Independent) Senate.

The only transgression cited in the resolution was McCarthy acting like an insulting, high-handed jerk toward a number of senators who were investigating him.  Apparently the investigation itself hadn’t produced anything deemed suitably awesome—or maybe it was always intended as just a waystation in the road to Senate condemnation.  In any case, the anti-McCarthy forces simply nailed him for his demeanor.

People who remember Clarence Thomas’ “high tech lynching” stunt before the Senate Judiciary Committee will be amused to learn that one of McCarthy’s main transgressions was characterizing the proceeding against him as “a lynch-party” or “lynch bee.”

All 44 Democrats voted for the resolution.  Twenty-two Republicans also voted in favor and twenty-two against, leading one to believe that Eisenhower-inflected party politics rather than good old small d/Large D/Murrow-fueled democratic indignation was in play.  Senator Flanders, the good buddy of Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff Sherman Adams, introduced the resolution. 

Afterwards, McCarthy faded away and died from hepatitis.  Again, it will be interesting to see what Nichols has to say about any Eisenhower-related maneuverings that may have prevented McCarthy from bouncing back.

Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly, became very close to Eisenhower, describing Ike after he left office as “a part-time correspondent for CBS News” because of all the TV specials the ex-President did with CBS Reports.  I leave it to the inquisitive to explore when those close relations began, and whether the well-connected Murrow et. al. had any inkling that Eisenhower and his team were maneuvering to drop the hammer on McCarthy as the famous See It Now broadcast was assembled.

One of my favorite journo stories concerns the carefully choreographed leaking of the vital Army report to the press on March 11, two days after Murrow’s famous broadcast.  Press coverage of the allegations created the outrage boomlet that midwived the fatal Army hearings.  The anecdote comes courtesy of Art Spivak, then working for International News Service:

... the Army’s counsel, John G. Adams slipped to some senators and to the Baltimore Sun’s reporter Phil Potter a 34-page single-spaced “chronology” of efforts by Cohn, with McCarthy’s backing, to force the Army to give Roy’s recently-drafted buddy G. David Schine a direct promotion to lieutenant, assign him to serve his military term on the staff of the subcommittee, and enjoy sundry other favors. The bottom line was a charge that Cohn threatened to “wreck the Army” if his wishes were rejected.

Adams, a fellow South Dakotan and long-time friend of Potter’s, knew Potter would make use of the anti-Cohn, anti-McCarthy chronology, Potter, in turn, knew that the chronology was potential dynamite and his unsyndicated story would get nowhere unless other news outlets had it too.

The way Potter told it to me later, he therefore offered a copy of the Adams chronology to Arkansas Democratic Sen. John L. McClellan, ranking minority member of McCarthy’s subcommittee. McClellan was an arch-conservative and at first didn’t oppose McCarthy, but he grew to despise the Wisconsin Republican’s tactics. And so, with Potter’s guidance, McClellan invited a small group of reporters to his Fairfax Hotel apartment in Washington and leaked the chronology to them. I was one of those invited. Others included reporters for AP, UP, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

There was only one copy of the chronology available at McClellan’s suite, so the four other reporters and I laboriously hand-copied each of the 34 single-spaced pages of the document, passing each page to the other reporter until all were finished copying. We didn’t finish until close to midnight. From the hotel, I phoned a “bulletin” and brief story to the INS news desk in Washington, to catch the wire at the end of what we called the “A.M. cycle” for morning papers.


At the time, and for years afterward, I thought Adams had prepared and leaked his chronology on his own, in retribution for his and his Army colleagues’ treatment by McCarthy and Cohn.

Thirty years later, the full story came out in Ewald’s deceptively titled “Who Killed Joe McCarthy” book. Ewald provided chapter and verse on how Adams was only one player in a broadly mounted but confidential assault on McCarthy and Cohn by the Eisenhower White House, Department of Defense, and Department of the Army. The President himself was described as publicly silent but vitally active in orchestrating the developments that spawned the Army- McCarthy hearings.

Yes.  Faithful steno work and an inability to see the big picture and the guy behind the curtain—Eisenhower.  That’s how the press helped bring down Tailgunner Joe.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how Donald Trump meets his political end, perhaps for some legal or tax entanglement.  That is, if there’s anybody in the political establishment adept as Eisenhower who wants to remove a disruptive, independent-minded demagogue.  If there is, I don’t doubt that the journalists will be ready to hold up their end.