Friday, December 18, 2009

Top 50 Books For Our Time

Senator Joe McCarthy Richard H Rovere

I read this as part of My Friend Amy's Newsweek 50 Books Reading Project.

Newsweek said this was one of the books we should be reading now because it is "An elegant short-form primer on the machinery of Washington's morality-and a timely reminder of what happens when demagogues gain access to what Rovere calls "the dark places of the American mind."

When Amy wanted volunteers, this was my top choice because it McCarthy and I share a hometown of Appleton, WI (where he is, to many people, our hometown hero) and he did most of his damage in my current town of Washington, DC.

What is initially most striking about this book is when it was written. 1959 was a mere two years after McCarthy's death and only five years after his political downfall. It's interesting how focus has shifted since then. While parts of Joseph Welch's cross are quoted, his most famous line, "Have you no sense of decency?" is never mentioned. We get a deep exploration of the roles of other people-- McCarthy's staff (and brains of the operation) Roy Cohn and David Schine, as well as other Senators and politicians and the roles they played. Looking back from today, it can be hard to remember that McCarthy was not acting alone. At the same time, the book is very beltway-insider focused, so it's hard to truly get a sense of how the American public felt about things and what the effects were on the people that McCarthy named as being Communists. Rovere covered McCarthy (as part of his Washington beat) for the New Yorker, so parts of the book are told in first person and Rovere has a different perspective than the historians and biographers of today.

The problem of course, with such things, is that the original audience of the book knew the basics of the story, that they lived through the hours of TV coverage and probably watched it. They knew which names were named and what happened and how far and deep it all went, all of which can't necessarily be said of current readers. Overall it is a deep and penetrating look at man who only believed in one thing-- himself. Anti-communism wasn't a deep cause of his except in that it could be used to springboard himself to fame. Today, I think McCarthy would have aspired to cable news instead of the Senate. An author today would be better comparing him to our talking heads than Rovere's disappointingly frequent comparisons to Hitler. Sadly, it also shows that McCarthy succeeded because the American people wanted soundbites and drama, not intellectual conversation. America's focus was on McCarthy's made-up list of 205 communists instead of missile defense, diplomacy, or a myraid of other issues facing the nation.

The arguements here ring so soundly true of our current political climate that it is deeply chilling as it shows how ripe we currently are for another like him. And THAT'S why this is one of the books we should be reading now.

And a footnote from page 215 to file under "the more things change, the more they stay the same:"

"In the perspective of 1959, it appears more vital than ever. Russian progress in missile development increases the need for effective warning systems, and ours, as of this writing, is not as effective as it needs to be. An intercontinental ballistic missile fired from Soviet territory would take thirty minutes to reach this country. It takes twenty minutes for the countdown on the best of these we have in various stages of development. This leaves ten minutes for detection, the elimination of ambiguities, and the making of the decision to retaliate--which, under existing law, requires Presidential approval. The elimination of ambiguities is far from easy. A flock of geese could be mistaken for unrushing missiles by our radar; a bombardment of aluminum foil might thoroughly confuse us. The Fort Monmouth people were working on these problems, among others, and their work was clearly essential to the national interest."

But, in 1954, the Fort Monmouth people were on trail in the Army-McCarthy hearings creating headlines and newsreel, not working on missile defense. Sadly, if you replace "Soviet" with our more recent communist enemies (North Korea anyone?) this sounds eerily familiar?

Book Provided by... my local library

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