Extremism and Me
In the past readers learned about my maiden plunge as a voter into presidential elections. In the time before the minimal age was lowered I was first eligible in 1952.
But that November found me still an Army sergeant ostensibly managing the American Forces Network station in Bremerhaven. The Pentagon turned aside my request to go to Korea, causing me to miss the war that Ernest Hemingway said every young man needed.
Given my double enlistments and a very pleasant encounter with General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower, he would have certainly received my support in his first presidential campaign. Absentee voting for overseas troops came long after I returned to civilian life.
By the time 1956 rolled around, I was married, the father of two sons, the holder of a GI-mortgaged house in College Park and running a public relations and promotion business. If never a solid member of the American middle class, I gave it a try.
At that point in life, I had left The Washington Post, hosted a two-hour program on the newspaper’s Channel 9 and worked in an advertising agency while blitzing out a college degree; after dawdling through classes at Tulane, Heidelberg and Georgetown, I raced through my final requirements at the University of Maryland.
Early in the White House race, both grownup Meachums chose Adlai Stevenson as the candidate who spoke to our views and hopes. My wife and I were products of the Depression’s dark days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was something more than the nation’s chief executive. In my case, the only Republicans I knew growing up wore dead faces in Louisiana history books.
The first time around, Mr. Eisenhower possessed a non-political bloom that faded for me during the years he appeared to manage the nation’s business through people like Sherman Adams. Ike’s chief of staff, a former New Hampshire governor, was forced to resign because for accepting gifts from a lobbyist, including an infamous vicuna coat.
Most of all, my longtime hero had disillusioned me by his silence during the days when McCarthyism ran rampant, ruining lives with innuendo, half-truths and downright lies, all in the name of saving the country from communism.
On the record, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and Roy Cohn, who did all of the “grunt” work thus allowing the gentleman from Wisconsin to court the media and other fawning elements; the two most feared public figures of their era eventually went into disgrace without uncovering a single Red.
In their three-year reign of terror, however, hundreds of gays were forced from their government jobs as “security risks,” largely through the tactics of Mr. Cohn, who turned out to be a hardcore homosexual; he was among AIDS’ early casualties.
Senator McCarthy left such minor fish to his chief assistant, of course, while he raked over his betters whose ranks included a pair of secretaries of state.
In the years when the republic was undergoing a badly needed escape from single-party rule, Democrat president Harry Truman’s choice for the nation’s highest appointed office seemed fair political game.
Dean Acheson, moreover, bore the stigma of being a member of elite Ivy League circles, who paraded in London-tailored suits and sported a British guardsman’s moustache. His sartorial and facial embellishments were particularly objectionable to a man whose trousers generally lacked creases and wore his tie normally at half-mast.
The secretary’s highest crime in Red-hunter McCarthy’s eyes, however, could be found in the undeniable reality that, before moving into the top job, Mr. Acheson had worked with Alger Hiss, the most famous of the alleged secret communists in the State Department.
His guilt never proven, Mr. Hiss went to prison for committing perjury before a committee that included Congressman Richard Nixon, who was rewarded with the vice-president’s slot on Mr. Eisenhower’s ticket.
As for Mr. Acheson, even after the change in administrations, he remained a favorite target for McCarthyites; he met their soft-on-communism attacks with mute dignity counting on history to exonerate his public record; it did.
President Eisenhower preserved his office and himself from that round of muck throwing, in keeping with his announced intention of remaining above politics, a position made possible by his status as one of World War II’s most illustrious figures. It also helped that the fiercely partisan Mr. Adams minded GOP interests in Ike’s White House.
It may have been Sherman Adams’ influence; I never learned the reason, but only silence ensued when Mr. McCarthy aimed his mud at the individual most responsible for promoting the sitting president’s military career.
Put another way: Dwight David Eisenhower reached the Oval Office on the basis of his role as America’s supreme commander in Europe, a promotion he received because of George Catlett Marshall, who was President Roosevelt’s chief of staff over all the country’s armed forces during the war.
The nation’s ranking general added to his distinguished place in history when he agreed to become Harry Truman’s secretary of state, a post he used to create the Marshall Plan, which received universal acclamation, on this side of the Iron Curtain, for ensuring Western Europe’s escape from falling under Soviet influence.
Serving in the occupation during those years, I saw and felt the direct results wrought by Secretary Marshall’s accomplishments, which were so effective that Moscow was forced to declare the Berlin blockade.
It was my privilege to participate in the Airlift that broke the last gasp effort to preserve communist influence in Germany and permitted George Catlett Marshall to finally retire to the house that sits down U.S. 15: in the outer reaches of old Leesburg, VA. Mr. Acheson was his successor, reportedly with the retired general’s hearty approval.
Except for the brief stint in Bremerhaven, I spent all the McCarthy era in Washington, in the military and then in pursuits detailed above; character assassination and fear of being seen in the “wrong” company became part of the daily fabric.
My times as a Washington Post copyboy and a reporter forced me to pay closer attention than probably would have happened otherwise. But while still in uniform, living in and going to Georgetown, I learned the vicious nature of McCarthyism early.
Hauling the Post’s chief photographer Arthur Ellis’s equipment for President Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration, I must confess excitement about my first civilian job – and on The Post – occupied my rapt attention.
There was, in addition, the brimming optimism and buoyant good feelings generated by the celebrity president, celebrated for both a wide grin and his capability of getting people to work together, in the pattern he established among the war’s strong and diverse personalities.
Moreover, I had briefly met the five-star general, been on the receiving end of his brilliant smile and had him talked to me directly. “Excuse me, son” hardly ranks as a conversation but it worked for me as a memento. Wow! What a day!
On later recollection I realized the inauguration’s date came almost exactly three years after Joe McCarthy rocketed into national prominence by waving a paper that he claimed contained a list that never existed, which set in chain the cancer on the republic known as McCarthyism.
But with Ike in the White House, the whole country just knew everything would be alright; that’s how I felt. Avoiding nasty topics during the campaign could be excused; after all Mr. Stevenson, his opponent both times, had argued every politician’s first obligation is to get elected.
But as the months passed, President Eisenhower refused to rebuke the extremism symbolized by the senator from Wisconsin. Following his example others of his ilk practiced similar name-calling and personal devastation under the assumption they would enjoy similar immunity from the country’s most popular politician. And they did.
Joe McCarthy’s assaults even on George Marshall could not bring the former secretary of state’s protégé to his defense. Dwight David Eisenhower provided exalted proof to a long-dead British statesman’s warning that good men’s silence promotes evil.
As Ike’s first term wound down, I looked to Mr. Stevenson running the second time with more intelligence and wit, charm and sophistication than any candidate has brought to the presidential trail. I proudly stuck in my jacket’s lapel the ex-Illinois’ governor’s symbol: a replica sole with a hole, adapted from a news photo taken of his shoe.
But in the College Park voting booth, I dropped the Stevenson token in a pocket and pulled the lever for Mr. Eisenhower’s re-election. Why?
With their eyes on American politics, Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest, crushing Hungarians’ desperate attempt for liberation. Although behind the Iron Curtain, that naked display of totalitarian power unsettled me.
Standing there I was keenly aware of the nation’s need for a man in the White House who could handle Budapest and finesse withdrawal from the Suez Canal. Dragging France and Britain along, Israel had calculated the canal’s seizure to coincident with U.S. voting, believing the grab would pass unchallenged. To his everlasting credit, Ike forced the invaders to withdraw.
In my mind, that November was simply no time to make a change in the Oval Office and that helped me to understand what happened in the last presidential election.
But I have never lost my horror at people who ape Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn by choosing to demean, denigrate and ridicule folks with whom they disagree. We live in days when those evil ways have returned. Big time. But not around me.
Both on a public stage and in private intercourse, I will not be party to the behavior that seeks to kill dialogue by viciously destroying counter ideas and anyone who holds them. Unlike Dwight Eisenhower on George Marshall, I will not surrender democracy by my silence.
Years after I voted my fears not my conscience, I felt salved upon learning that my youthful hero had indeed labored to end McCarthyism and its echoes. The realization was small comfort, at best.