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June 4, 2013

Joe McCarthy’s Last Day: Aftermath

Roy Meachum

A break in the farewell ceremonies permitted senators to lunch with the new widow in the Senate’s dining room; I went to the paper and reported in for the first time that day. I expected no problems before traveling to Andrews Air Force Base to watch the lift-off of a military airplane, flying the coffin to Appleton, Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy’s hometown.


Before grabbing a sandwich at the New York Café just down from the Post on L Street, I walked through the small sports department and into the newsroom. Cy Fishbein was nowhere in sight. I was disappointed and relieved at the same moment. Turning to head back for the elevator, Frank Porter’s angry blustering caught me off guard; he had not been there when I checked the room. He was now.


“Where the hell have you been?” the acting assistant city editor yelled. I answered in a light tone, trying for humor; there was none to be had. To my reply that I started off the day by going to church, as good Christians should – he demanded angrily to hear what I did there? Frank shifted tone quickly. The news desks’ phones were blistered by complaints, he said. For making obscene remarks about the deceased, the voices insisted, the Post reporter was kicked out of the solemn requiem mass; they wanted to know what the editors intended to do.


Controlling emotions, I took a breath and quietly commented the newspaper must have another reporter covering the story; I had no idea what he was talking about. The offer to turn over my notes was instantly rejected; and I was ominously informed we would get together when I returned from the Air Force base, and in Managing Editor Friendly’s office!  I scarcely touched the New York Café’s salami, which normally I enjoyed. The 7-Up was better. I rode to Andrews with the photographer.


My churning stomach made impossible any attempt to find fresh insight about the two Air Force planes that transported the late senator home. The widow flew with the coffin in the lead ship and several of his closest political allies – Sens. George W. Malone, William Jenner and Herman Welkerfiled – trudged up the steps to a second plane. That was it. I rode back to 1515 L Street N.W.


Directly I appeared on the fifth floor, waiting Frank Porter signaled me to go to Al Friendly’s office; I did not look forward to what could follow. The managing editor had always been kind; he teased sometimes about pieces I wrote, once promising he would have a box of commas delivered to my desk. When I walked into his office that afternoon, he looked over his Ben Franklin half-glasses and solemnly waved at a place in the line before his desk; acting City Editor Fishbein was there already. The Post’s managing editor invited Frank Porter to speak; I listened impatiently, wanting to challenge his story at several points.


When he finished, Managing Editor Friendly asked the acting assistant city editor, if he made an attempt to make certain who the caller meant, did he describe me in order to be sure? Frank reacted in such a way; everybody in the room knew that’s what happened. When the man who had taken all the heat from the McCarthyites that day finished, the managing editor curtly stopped my attempt to speak.


Al Friendly informed the assembled group in soft conversational tones that he had spoken to John Hurley, who was standing nearby in the cathedral back as I followed the eulogy’s text in the press release. The colonel saw nothing disturbing in anything I did. Furthermore, I left, he said, as soon as Monsignor Cartwright’s finished. According to the Post managing editor, the archdiocesan public relations director had described exactly what I knew occurred.


Sy Fishbein and Frank Porter returned to the newsroom quickly. I lingered while the others filed out, trying to explain how carefully I had been in what was done and in how I dressed. Al Friendly cut me short: “You’re not that dumb,” he said, “and that’s why I told the desk to assign you.” What had been a leaden disaster in my life turned golden at the words.


Sitting at my newsroom’s Royal typewriter, copy boys and girls added to the stack of wire services’ copies. I glanced at some: they followed lines guaranteed not to bring the McCarthyites down on their heads. I couldn’t be bothered with any of it. My piece in the next morning’s Post was written with stiff hands. I said what I had to say and shut up. I received no byline; welcomed none.

The anecdote about the man rushing away with flowers disappeared.


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