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May 30, 2008

McCarthy's Last Hours in Town

Roy Meachum

On recent warm days, my thoughts have gone back to another May: I was then a reporter for The Washington Post. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy had breathed his last labored breath on May 2, 1957, at Bethesda's Naval Medical Center. Like everyone else at the paper, and many in the nation, his death electrified our memories.


The junior senator from Wisconsin no longer commanded bold headlines; they were knocked out by his chamber's censure three years before. Occasionally, gossip floated around. The one-time terror of bureaucrats and homosexuals was said reduced to grabbing Capitol Hill journalists around the shoulders; the easier to get their attention. In alcohol-heavy breath they said he virtually begged for recognition.


In February 1950, at a women's Republican Lincoln Day dinner, in Wheeling, WV, he captured the world's attention; he waved a piece of paper he claimed contained 205 "known" communists employed by the State Department. He would subsequently share the list with no one else; the number fluctuated with retelling.


The first major struggle in the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift, had been won by the United States, Britain and France the May before. The House Un-American Activities Committee had exposed red-leaning authors, filmmakers and entertainers, in New York and Los Angeles. They made a swoop into Washington to nab Alger Hiss; he was sentenced that January, convicted on perjury, the month before Wheeling.


His chief accuser, sometime Time editor Whittaker Chambers, had painted Mr. Hiss as a terrorist from Moscow and the chief cog in a spy machine. None of those charges was tried; the incidents Mr. Chambers alleged had expired due to the statute of limitations.


A few months after the Lincoln Day Dinner, South Korea was invaded and nearly lost to the communist regime that ruled the northern half of that unhappy country. The entire country seemed gripped by fear, possibly paranoia: average families built bomb shelters in their backyards.


The state of the nation's anxiety was fodder for any demagogue, and that's where Mr. McCarthy came in. In the name of anti-communism, Wisconsin's junior senator had big league success in attacking President Harry Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and lesser mortals that offended him.


Roy Cohn's name was entered as the lead attorney on the payroll of the Senate Permanent Investigating Subcommittee; that made Senator McCarthy, the chairman, nominally his boss. To reporters and others who paid attention to the subcommittee hearings, the attorney obviously ran the show operating through the chairman.


Conservatives who were not in Washington at the time still hail the senator as a great leader against the Red threat, brought down by the liberal media. In fact, he did himself in. A conservative GOP colleague, Ralph Flanders led the move to officially censure the fireball from the Midwest. The vote was not close. Since there was no reason to worry about his revelations and inquiries, the man who once tried to intimidate presidents virtually vanished from sight.


By the way, the people affected most by the McCarthy-Cohn "crusade" were homosexuals; they were easily blackmailed, it was said, because of their then-illegal sexual activities. Years later, forced from his own closet, Roy Cohn was shown to be a sadomasochistic homosexual, hardly fit to be around.


There were no published cases, I can recall, of Soviet moles exposed as the result of the subcommittee's activities. Hundreds of gays, especially in Washington offices, found their careers and lives wrecked. Going to Georgetown College at that time, and living nearby, I had neighbors directly affected. Their stricken grief and tears lingered still, at the senator's death.


His followers, called McCarthyites, had frustrated Post copyboys for years by shouting into their ears on the phone: Is this the Washington Daily Worker? They added the city to the name of the best-known American communist newspaper.


The days after his death saw the senator restored in the media: Big, black headlines vied with the electronic media, including struggling television. Former Secretary of State Acheson quoted Latin for the famous saying: Of the dead nothing but good.


My Sunday shift was almost over when acting City Editor Sy Fishbein asked me to stop by before going home. I wondered, but thought he might want to talk about a changed shift, something of that sort. Instead he asked me to go to St. Matthew's Cathedral the following morning and report on Joseph R. McCarthy's last hours in the town he once enthralled.


Dressing that Monday was an exercise in not offending anyone: a dark suit and a tie with no trace of red. I arrived early at the cathedral steps, where the press gathered waiting for the Solemn Mass. John Hurley, the church public relations man, handed out press releases, including the eulogy to be delivered by Msgr. John Cartwright.


Most of us waited outside until the sermon. I slipped in, checked the accuracy of the release, and ducked out quickly.


Afterwards came a singular ceremony rarely, if ever, held before. His coffin was brought to Capitol Hill and set down in the chamber that counted him a member for the past 10 years. A progression of senators took turns in following Mr. Acheson's advice; they found only good things to say. Wisconsin's senior senator, Alex Wiley, and the deceased closest allies, stayed out. They could have been saving their words for lunch with the widow that followed.


The break enabled me to check in with the paper before grabbing a salami sandwich from a nearby cafe. I stopped before the city desk for any further instructions. Sy Fishbein was not there. His assistant city editor that day had plenty to say, beginning with, "Where the hell have you been?"


I thought he was joking, of course, and began: "I went to church, as all Christians should, and..."


His face said he was serious. I stood transfixed as he recited how numerous voices called to ask the desk what the editors were going to do. According to the callers, The Washington Post reporter stood in the back of the cathedral, making obscene and derogatory comments about the deceased, before he was thrown out.


My stomach sank. I offered to turn the morning notes over to someone else, and willingly slink away. I felt betrayed that the editors thought I was capable of such conduct. I was told to finish the job and report to the managing editor's office when through. Al Friendly was our boss.


Two planes waited at Andrews Air Force Base to take off for Appleton, Wisconsin. The widow climbed up the steps to the one that contained her husband's coffin. In the second went the late senator's close allies, the ones silent in the chamber.


When I walked out of the elevator, the anxious editor pointed toward Mr. Friendly's office. I found a place among editors lined up before the desk. The assistant city editor was asked to repeat what happened; I wanted to interrupt several times, to set the record straight. I didn't. He finished.


Looking over his Ben Franklin half-glasses, Al Friendly calmly told the gathering Col. Hurley witnessed my performance in St. Matthew's that morning. He saw me leave directly after the monsignor finished. The managing editor said he was satisfied the public relations man had told what really happened.


More than 50 years later, of course, I remember Senator McCarthy's last hours in Washington, as if they were only yesterday.


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