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As Long as We Remember...

October 18, 2005

Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy

Roy Meachum

When Joseph R. McCarthy spoke to a Wheeling Lincoln Day dinner, I scarcely know what was going on. Wisconsin's junior senator told West Virginia Republicans, the State Department was loaded with communists. He waved a paper he claimed contains specific names.

On that February day, I was still a sergeant, the announcer-narrator for the United States Army Band, expected to show up chiefly for concerts and broadcasts. I was also a college student, enrolled in Georgetown, living in a nearby house.

My apartment occupied the second floor of what had been half of a mansion built for a 19th century ambassador from Imperial Russia. My rent was paid by an Army allowance I received because the band provided no billets on its post, Fort Myer, Virginia.

In addition to proximity, the location came with a relatively low tab. I paid $65 for a flat with three rooms and two wood burning fireplaces. I shared a kitchen with a Pentagon chief warrant officer assigned to the Army chief of staff's office.

The upstairs neighbor was a veteran State Department code clerk who delighted in his collection of Danish Christmas plates brought back from several years working at the Copenhagen embassy. His apartment offered a door directly into "our" bathroom, which I reached by crossing a hall and climbing stairs.

My place offered neither toilet nor shower; a matter that didn't matter in my life. In that dawning of the television age, it was more important that my radio came with a record player. After all, I was barely 21, returned almost exactly one year from Airlift Berlin, where there was little question who were communists. Most wore Red Army uniforms.

By the time I made my daily appearance in the kitchen, the CWO was long gone over the Potomac, almost certainly already at his E-ring office. We barely saw each other. He seemed always away from his apartment. He was much younger than Tim, the man upstairs.

Originally from Richmond, Tim still spoke with a Virginia cadence, sometimes throwing away consonants. We had a natural affinity, both being Southerners with recent years in Europe. He sometimes invited me to share the rye whisky he drank every day, but never to excess that I knew.

Neither neighbor was married, a fact that the rental agent stressed; but neither was I. At that point my status might be best described as "single on the lookout." I was married by that year's Fourth of July but not before witnessing first hand the devastation of human beings that was the real product of what became "McCarthyism."

As the winter turned to spring, suspicion grew all over Washington. Senator McCarthy never produced names on his "list," which created a fear that anyone could be a communist.

That ground had already been plowed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had reaped tremendous publicity three years before by attempting to prove Hollywood was run by Moscow.

In the absence of verifiable proof, people in the screen industry were found guilty by association. In order to save themselves from blacklisting and possible jail terms, those accused before the committee frequently scrambled to prove their loyalty; some resorted to naming names, passing the suspicions along.

Goaded by Senate committee chief counsel Roy Cohn, Mr. McCarthy managed to generate a similar atmosphere on the Potomac. I knew folks who refused to go to parties where they might have contact with people who seemed the senator' s likely targets. I was told long-time friends would cross the street to avoid "dangerous" encounters.

Little of this affected me, of course. Not directly, at least.

But running concurrent with the campaign to rid the government of any Reds was the quieter inquisition against homosexuals. There were to be driven off the federal payroll on the basis they were security risks. Their then-illegal sexual practices made them susceptible to blackmail.

Of course, the same standard applied to "straights" who committed adultery or consorted with prostitutes; but heterosexuals were never targeted by Senator McCarthy's committee, maybe because the chief counsel was Roy Cohn.

Only after the senator's demise did the world learn Mr. Cohn was homosexual; he died of a socially transmitted disease that escapes all but a few heterosexuals. By attacking "gays," a word not in use yet, he certainly called attention away from his own tendencies.

Eventually, Mr. Cohn became the major factor in Joseph R. McCarthy's political fall, which came during televised hearings to refute Roy Cohn's allegations about how the Army protected communists.

The real issue was a vendetta launched by the chief counsel over his failure to convince the brass that hotel heir David Schine, a draftee, should be given a direct commission and assigned as Mr. Cohn's personal assistant.

Without the lieutenant's bars, the couple still traveled all over the place, including Europe, snatching books out of embassy and USIA libraries. Everywhere they went there were stories of monstrous personal arguments so noisy that hotel staffs and guests were forced to listen in.

Mr. Schine was not in the room the day that Boston attorney Joseph Welch managed, with tears, to turn public sentiment against Joseph R. McCarthy. A subsequent Senate investigation stripped the gentleman from Wisconsin of any real power. He died three years later; severe alcoholism was the whispered cause.

Till this day, I have never heard of a single, genuine card-carrying Communist outed and ousted by McCarthyism, and I've asked my right wing friends; I have also read books. Nothing.

But I knew at the time that homosexuals were being pushed out in the street, abandoned by federal employers afraid of attracting the ire of Joseph R. McCarthy and his vicious counsel.

My upstairs neighbor was an early casualty.

Within weeks after Wheeling's Lincoln Day dinner, Tim appeared at my door, clutching his small dog and tears flowing down his cheeks. The State Department had dispensed with its faithful code clerk, despite his record and achievements over the years.

Later I learned that the gentleman who shared my kitchen suffered a similar fate. I was married by then and moved to another Georgetown house.

In a new movie, George Clooney would have audiences believe CBS' Edward R. Murrow fought Wisconsin's junior senator all by himself; that was not the case. I was there.

In Friday's column, observations on the media's role in McCarthyism.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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