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Burying Joe McCarthy

Roy Meachum

May 3, 2005

A footnote to history published yesterday brought back vivid memories of the day I helped bury Joseph R. McCarthy, as a young reporter.

Even after his death the men and women proudly labeled McCarthyites retained deep animosity for The Washington Post. The paper was the first – and for some time the only – medium to resist the Wisconsin senator’s smears and half-truths under the guise of ridding the country of communists and their fellow travelers. He especially cited gays as both security risks and immoral people.

Working as a copyboy when McCarthyism ran rampant over Washington and its institutions, I answered more than several callers who blasted The Post frequently with obscenities. The cleanest line: “Is this the Washington Daily Worker?”

Their ire had been particularly incensed by Herblock’s cartoons that inevitably depicted the movement hero with dirty hands and a face and beard to match. The McCarthyites had been generally silenced when the senator had been both censured by his colleagues and stripped of his chairmanship on the investigations committee. His death brought them roaring back, as I discovered.

My story begins on Sunday, May 5, 1957, a day like all Sundays during President Eisenhower’s second term. The former general’s presence in the White House restored Sabbath tranquility, especially after he had imposed a truce in Korea. Even the national fear of world communism had receded after the Senate had branded Joe McCarthy a loser. His death the previous Thursday had put his name back on front pages again.

His allies and cohorts, who had abandoned him after the Senate’s censure, lined up one last time on his side to hail a man they called a great American. His targets and enemies were equally sought for comment; the best came from former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. When pressed he replied: “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” (Of the dead nothing but good).

At that time I was a very junior reporter, which had much to do with my working Sundays when the capability of embarrassing the editors was reduced to a minimum. I read the McCarthy stories with the interest of someone who had an apartment in Georgetown when his power was at its height; it cost the jobs of several men whom I suspected were homosexual. One appeared at my door in tears at the news.

Living in College Park that Sunday, I started to leave to catch the bus when Frank Porter signaled me up to the desk. Working as assignment editor, he told me I was to cover Monday’s ceremonies for Senator McCarthy, beginning with mass at St. Matthew’s. I tried not to show my surprise at the honor.

Presenting myself early on the cathedral’s steps, I purposely kept my mouth shut; I had dressed that morning in a way to call no special attention: dark gray suit, button-down white shirt and a somber tie, chosen to replace a regimental stripe that included the color red, a no-no that morning.

In any event, I took notes and asked questions of other reporters but in a quiet voice; I was trying very hard to avoid censure from McCarthyites. At the eulogy I stepped inside, keeping my back to the cathedrals outside wall as I checked the released text against what Msgr. Awalt actually said. No problem.

Then followed a ride up to Capitol Hill where I perched for the first time in the Senate Press Gallery and observed the ritual the United States Senate deploys to mourn colleagues, even those who died in disgrace, like Joe McCarthy. His widow and former secretary were present while senator after senator followed Dean Acheson’s advice and found something good to say.

Two things stand out from that occasion; the first was the absence from the floor of all his staunch allies, men like “Molly” Malone (R., Nev.) and Alexander Wiley (R., Wis.). Every senator he had attacked, generally Democrats, rendered praise, however faint. The display of good manners was formidable.

The other happening was the sight of a well-dressed man who copped a bouquet from the funereal flowers that lined the Senate steps. The unknown scurried away, without looking back.

Before traveling to Andrews Air Force base for the flight to Wisconsin, the widow was hosted at a lunch in the Senate dining room. I went back to the paper and reported in to Frank Porter who greeted me with: “Where the hell have you been?”

I thought he was kidding. “I started with church, as all good people should,” I replied before recognizing he was deadly serious. “What do you mean?” I asked.

My editor poured forth a story about a Washington Post reporter being asked to leave St. Matthew’s after making obscene comments about the late Senator. I didn’t hear the details. I replied, to the effect, I didn’t know what he was talking about unless there had been another Post reporter at the scene. He replied no, of course. I offered to turn over my notes and skip the coffin’s departure.

With seeming resignation, Frank waved my offer aside and told me to finish the assignment but report back to him when I returned. With a very sour disposition I went into a saloon and ate half a salami sandwich, drank a 7-Up and walked out for a taxi.

The cast at Andrews included the widow, of course. And all the faces missing in the Senate chamber turned up for the trip to Appleton, perhaps with some hope of gaining the deceased’s tattered leadership. So ran my thoughts before going back to the Post.

Frank Porter swept me into Managing Editor Al Friendly’s office where he repeated, with more specifics, the allegations lodged against me, as a Post reporter. Cy Fishbein, the acting city editor that day, vaguely backed up the story, citing a few calls he had to catch because Frank was on the phone.

We were lined up, like schoolboys, in the front of our boss’s desk and studied across the top of Ben Franklin’s specs, the kind missing their upper half. When I started to give my version, Al waved me off and asked Frank if the callers had identified my clothing and appearance or had he volunteered what I looked like to be sure they had the right person. The silence that followed provided the answer.

The managing editor then proceeded to tell us he had checked with the archdiocesan public relations, a retired Army colonel, who said he had been a few feet away from me in the church. He denied absolutely that I had misbehaved.

After the others filed out, I wanted to apologize but the man who was both my managing editor and my mentor stopped me short: “If I would have had doubts, I would not have told Porter to give you the assignment.” I could only stammer my thanks.

In any event, the story I wrote was by design pedestrian and understated; I had no stomach to follow Dean Acheson’s stricture, as I had fully intended, using the man with the copped bouquet to say some people still sincerely believed in a man who had hurt and figuratively crippled many, especially homosexuals. By the way, solid evidence subsequently surfaced the terror of gays was almost certainly homosexual himself.

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