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Hey, Joe 

Book review: Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joseph McCarthy by Tom Wicker

Published April 5, 2006 at 2:19 a.m.

Boogiemen do not enjoy a long afterlife in this country -- unless, of course, they become legends. In the past, newspapers could effect this transformation. Today the fieriest kiln is Hollywood. Thus one can bet Sen. Joseph McCarthy will be remembered a while longer, thanks to Good Night, and Good Luck. Shot in elegant black and white, the 2005 film vividly re-imagines television newsman Edward R. Murrow's attack on McCarthy's witch-hunt.

But the movie only tells part of the story. As Rochester, Vermont, resident Tom Wicker reveals in his crisp new book, Shooting Star, by the time Murrow's program aired, there were already voices calling for McCarthy to be reined in. In January 1954, Vermont Sen. Ralph Flanders ridiculed the bully on the Senate floor. And he was not alone. McCarthy had grappled with the head of the army, the CIA, even President Eisenhower -- and made powerful enemies.

What kind of hysteria would possess a man to take on a war-hero president? Wicker cannot fully answer this question, because there really are no answers. As his powers began to wane, McCarthy seems to have been just that crazy. Accepting this unknowability from the start, Shooting Star still gives readers an idea of where McCarthy's bravado came from, and also how much he was a product of his time.

From the beginning, the future senator from Wisconsin was a hard charger. At age 17, he managed a flock of 2000 chickens on his father's farm in Appleton. He later went back to school and finished four years of study in just nine months. McCarthy continued this tear into college, working up to 80 hours a week managing two service stations -- and spending the rest of his time gambling and drinking. He graduated in 1935 and, on a bet, opened his own law practice in the town of Waupaca. He earned $771.85 -- an income he supplemented with poker.

Thus began McCarthy's career of bluffing, bullying and charming his way into positions of power. In 1936, with no experience to speak of, he ran for district attorney and nearly won. Three years later, McCarthy unseated a popular district judge by campaigning tirelessly. He traveled from town to town, shook hands, held babies, wrote personal notes and, most importantly, slung some mud.

It was on the campaign trail -- when he was still a Democrat -- that McCarthyism was born. The young politician learned that once a charge hit a newspaper, the damage it could do would far outstrip the humiliation of a correction -- which would be printed much later, often buried deep in the paper. In a froth of anger, his opponents would often repeat McCarthy's claims, however false, adding fuel to the fire. Most people believe that where there is smoke, there is something burning, and so it goes.

It's hard to think of a better journalist than Wicker for this material. A former New York Times Washington bureau chief, he is the Damon Runyon of bureaucratic infighting. You can almost hear the punches being thrown. He also understands politics. Wicker has also written a short but superb biography of George H.W. Bush, who in the past four decades quietly amassed one of the most powerful political networks since Joe Kennedy's.

Although Wicker is a veteran of book writing, at heart he still seems a reporter. He allows Shooting Star very few flourishes, and sticks to the facts at hand with judicious solemnity. So although the book is no towering castle of prose, it is an elegant piece of reporting. As he demonstrated in his biography of Bush, Wicker knows exactly how much information to give us, and when. The result is an unlikely page-turner -- after all, we know the outcome.

McCarthy emerges from this portrait as the polar opposite of Bush. While Poppy amassed power by making friends, McCarthy made alliances by becoming the Republicans' junkyard dog -- a Richard Nixon on steroids. In the beginning, this was helpful to Republicans, who were shocked when McCarthy dusted off the anticommunist rhetoric kicking around Washington and turned it into effective political ammo. McCarthy's first major speech on the subject contained information that was several years old -- and incorrect. But the press still reported it. Sound familiar?

The press corps' behavior through this scandal was as abysmal as it was in the build-up to the current Iraq war. With each speech, McCarthy twisted the facts more, earning more publicity for himself and putting Democrats on the ropes. Morning editions kept the toot going. As Wicker describes, Republicans didn't know what a danger they had on their hands until McCarthy proved he could meddle in campaigns anywhere in the country and help enemies toward political retirement.

In this sense, Shooting Star reveals that McCarthy didn't just terrorize the nation; he also scared the bejesus out of Washington. His exploits were so colorful, Wicker merely needed to report them. McCarthy drank at work and bragged about owning the army. He attempted to play J. Edgar Hoover, arguably the best bureaucrat Washington has ever seen, and paid for it. He even attempted to install an ally's boyfriend in a cushy job in the army, and then punish the corps when this didn't happen.

In the end, McCarthy was done in by that age-old failing: hubris. Wicker clearly believes this was a character trait McCarthy possessed all along. More disturbingly, though, Shooting Star reveals that the communist chaser's career arc may have gone another way had Washington not done so much to encourage his nastiness.

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About The Author

John Freeman


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