Montana Viewpoint: Who’s standing up to ‘tail gunner Joe’ in today’s politics?

Now is a good time — a very important time — for Americans to remember the saga of “Tail Gunner Joe.” Only Joe was never a tail gunner who flew numerous combat missions in World War II — he made up that story all by himself. He was, however, a United States senator from Wisconsin and, as such, and being a bully and a liar, ruined the lives of thousands of Americans in a reign of political and psychological terror that lasted five years from 1950 to 1954.

Senator Joseph McCarthy decided he wanted to make a name for himself in American politics, so he invented his history of being a tail gunner, just as he invented the histories of countless innocent Americans by insinuating—rarely proving—that they were communists or communist sympathizers. ”Red-Baiting”, it was called.

As a United States senator, he had a lot of credibility. Actually, it was the title of his office that had the credibility because Joe, as I have said, was a liar.

He began his attack on truth in 1950 by claiming there were 205 members of the Communist Party working at the State Department. But a few weeks later it was only 57, and the number seemed to change every time he spoke. Facts, even phony facts, were not important to Joe.

The victims of his lies and innuendo were people like entertainers Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, and Edward G. Robinson; scientists Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer; and WW II hero General Ralph Zwicker. Many good American citizens lost their jobs and were blacklisted from employment. Some went to jail.

Because most Americans believed “tail gunner” Joe, for five years he went largely unchallenged by his fellow senators, who were afraid of him and what he could do to their reputations and careers simply by making false accusations. And if someone challenged him by supplying factual evidence of his lies … well, he would make up a lie about them and systematically destroy their reputation.

And so, they feared him, because he was a bully and a liar.

He “would go that extra mile to destroy you,” said Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson.

Joe was brought down, not by the courage of his peers, but because the well-respected reporter, Edward R. Murrow, exposed him on his CBS television show, See It Now, simply by using film clips of McCarthy that illustrated his lunacy and cruelty.

Said Murrow, “This is no time for those who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent ….”

This was the courage of the free press at its finest.

Then, to hasten his own downfall, he became too cocky. Confident that he was impervious to the opinion of powerful leaders, he began attacking his fellow senators as well as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. If one is wise—which he wasn’t—one doesn’t attack powerful people who will pass judgment on you if the need arises. Eventually, McCarthy was censured by the Senate 67 to 22.

He finished his Senate career as a public drunk, unwashed and disheveled; but while he held power he used it in ruthless, cruel ways for no other purpose than his own self-glorification. Of course, there are many bullies in this world, most of whom, happily, never get to a position of power. Those that do, fueled with that feeling of enormous power and the arrogance that accompanies it, are feared by their equals as well as their subordinates.

People, especially those in positions of power, are afraid to call the bully out because they expose themselves to danger and are often deserted by their powerful friends who know better but have lost their courage, not to mention their morality. Both, once lost, are hard to recover.

[Many of the facts and quotes in this article are from Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro]

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.