Burying Joe McCarthy
Washington Post City Editor Ben Gilbert’s Sunday stand-by, Sy Fishbein, asked me to drop by before leaving. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. When I walked up later to the bank of desks, I was curious but not really concerned.
In an offhand way, without making eye contact, Sy told me I was to go first thing in the morning to St. Matthew’s Cathedral and track Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy’s last day in Washington. I was shocked the assignment was handed to me, very junior on the reporting staff. In the city room aisle, I reacted in no way.
Running late for a Greyhound bus afforded me little time to look at the paper’s library file. On the way to College Park, I ran through my mind what I knew. My experiences with McCarthyism did not incline me to like the man, starting with the people up and below my Georgetown apartment being fired. Then there were AFN (Armed Forces Network American) Frankfurt’s John Penrose and Spiro in Berlin. The age of terror the man from Wisconsin created in the city had long since passed.
Since his censure by his colleagues, Senator McCarthy slipped into the public’s non-consciousness. Once shown politically impotent, he no longer mattered. The times were past when Murray Marder returned to the Post newsroom from the hill, eyes haunted and harassed. Most of all, in the newsroom, up close and personal; I recalled how his followers yelled into my ear: “Is this Washington Daily Worker?” Laughing hysterically, the callers hung up.
Joe McCarthy’ death was not unexpected. Few doubted he did himself in with booze. In fact, doctors said he suffered fatal acute hepatitis. His liver gave up. Stories buzzed around political circles that he was a sad spectacle, in later years. The sometimes stumbling senator supposedly grabbed lapels randomly, breathed heavy alcohol fumes in a stranger’s face and demanded in a nearly incoherent voice: “Do you know who I am?”
Dressing Monday morning for the requiem mass meant wearing a dark grey suit and a tie unblemished with the color red or any of its variations. I meant to deflect the inevitable criticisms from McCarthyites. It was a beautiful day, I noted. God smiled on the erratic Wisconsin Catholic.
Journalists gathered on the Cathedral steps. We were handed press releases by retired Army Col. John Hurley, the archdiocesan spokesman; it was a copy of Msgr John Cartwright’s eulogy. We watched Washington figures of note passing through until the mass began. Trying to note the notables was frustrating and to no avail; I slipped in and stood behind the back pews to hear Monsignor Cartwright, making sure there were no additions or subtractions from the speech released. There weren’t.
Coming out right after the funerary benediction, I discovered Washington’s Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle arranged a sacerdotal honor guard for the man considered a hero by much of the church hierarchy. At reporters’ approach the on-guard double line of priests ducked away, helter-skelter, literally sprinting. Very obviously they wanted nothing to do with the press.
Washington’s formal and official farewell to Joe McCarthy moved from the cathedral to the Senate chamber. Wisconsin’s senior senator, Alex Wiley, and the departed’s closest allies sat morosely silent. On the floor, courtesy prevailed. Some of the dead man’s bitter targets spoke meticulously of positive things they could say.
On the way out the formidable Capitol building, I noticed a well-dressed man walking swiftly away; pressed against his chest was a bouquet, part of the floral arrangements that lined the Senate-side steps. I mentally made a note to include the admirer in the story; he was an example of how some people still supported Joe McCarthy and his goals – despite my contrary view.