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The Night Joe McCarthy Came To Dinner

July 6, 2018


Joe McCarthy was a U.S. Senator. He found that  by catapulting fear in America he could ride it to extreme, and brief, popularity. The Red Menace was white hot after the USSR joined the nuclear age in the 1950’s. His legacy is now shame: he has been roundly vilified and chastised for indicting the innocent and creating conspiracy and bulldozing over thought with fear. The present era of anger and fear has used the reference  of Senator Joe McCarthy as emotional shorthand to convey the cultural damage inflicted by our worst impulses to demean and indict.

My parents loved him.

Like all popular movements, despite his obvious absurdities, there were truths in his appeal. The Soviet Union was huge, dark, ruthless and wanted to disempower us. Marxism was a life focus for many intellectuals and civic minded Americans in the mid 20th century. There were agents of the USSR trying to get information, advantage within the U.S. trying to wrest power from the United States. No question.

But the use of that fear to gain his own power was not lost on Joe McCarthy. He became a hero to my parents, but not their “class”. Ivy educated lawyers like my father were not Tail Gunner Joe’s constituency. Wisconsin and the 1950’s version of the Red States (versus the Red Menace) believed in the dangers of a pervasive post WW2 USSR espionage effort and viewed it as an existential threat.

The possibility that the hard won freedom from Nazi domination could blind us to the flow of Red agents and cultural subversion made a large number of Americans support McCarthy. There were some hard realities that countered the mainstream “nothing to see here” response of some – the highly politicized media events of Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, any number of other revelations were taken up by McCarthy followers as a sign that America was terminally compromised.

My parents believed.

It was a huge melodrama of vast conspiracies, of overarching constructs of danger and sabotage. No matter that their own post war damage went undiagnosed, let alone dealt with, the Red Menace allowed my folks to focus away from their own pain and confusion (unless alcohol let the damage run free in drunken expression.)

Stressed out lives create trigger moments where the lack of perspective and desperate fear explode into expression to the point of attacking what is feared. McCarthy’s death in 1957 was, of course, assassination to my parents: the end of his physical reality only galvanized their view that America was being sabotaged by the Commies.

It must have been 1960. The election was happening where JFK enraged my parents, who last cared, and cared deeply, that Wendell Wilkie was 1940’s Answer to the dark threat of FDR that was killing their world. After the war they purchased an unloved home built in a “second class” suburb in the 1920’s, and by hard work, and a friend giving my dad a loan, and, maybe, some inheritance and thousands of hours of weekend work over 5 years, they had made their place in Post War America.

Upon a level of completion, they invited the neighborhood for a catered buffet supper for adults, where my dad unloaded the volume of his full blown stereo, a bar filled with booze and a mother-decorated home filled with cigarette-serving vessels everywhere.

In this dim memory, I forget that my parents were fully 10 years younger than I am now, the house, the booze, the food were all realities that a son of uneducated immigrants had made it. It was a coming out party, and their 3 children, 14, 9, and 5 (me) were introduced to the jolly crowd, and then whisked up to bed as the jazz swelled and the liquor flowed.

We heard the laughter and occasional dropped glass, the isolated booming voice amid the 20 or 30 guests below us, all in their dry-cleaned best.

Suddenly, as I was drifting off to sleep, there was a loud blast of objection by my father. Then another drunken male in response, then several.

Then silence, then hushed bustling, people leaving amid doors and cars opening and closing.

In 20 minutes the reverie was done, the hired help was cleaning up. My father was still yelling: The Reds were killing America. Kennedy was going to give the country to Russia. We were in danger.

He had no idea that his children were upstairs, listening.

It was dark, the house was filled with blue smoke and the smell of Lobster casserole and scotch.

It was a dark night.

We slept, eventually, but there was never another party like that at our house or that my parents went to. Even in a time where drunken acting out was almost the norm, the intense realities of McCarthyism and the era were simply overwhelming for my parents.

Although he died in 1957, Joe McCarthy was a guest at the party that night. His form of securing power ended a dream of my parents. Their belief, complete, became anger with alcohol. It was a footnote in American history, and in the largely unnoticed history of my family, but that evening converged the raging fears of our culture and the humans in it.

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