Exhuming McCarthy: R.E.M. And A Sense Of Decency

“Exhuming McCarthy” is a spirited song highlighting a shameful period in American history. Members of the Jukebox Jury could give it an A+ for exposing demagoguery and having a good beat.

When creating a song about Joesph McCarthy, R.E.M. knew better than to make it sound dirge-like. The music, coupled with lyrics about paranoia and slander, needed to be playful and energetic. R.E.M. made it so. Perhaps some of those listening in or dancing along would give thought to McCarthy, the madness he contrived and the lives he ruined along the way. Even today, more than three decades after R.E.M. recorded “Exhuming McCarthy,” it’s still instructive to discern how McCarthyism originally manifested, and how its spirit, so contrary to the laws of nature, lingers on.

Paranoia, demagoguery and deceit: not exactly what a nation espousing inalienable rights is seeking. However, preying upon fears, and issuing slander with little interest in the truth has worked way too often for those craving power. It worked in the early to mid ’50s for Joseph McCarthy, a freshman Senator from Wisconsin. Exploiting the fears of Americans over the Soviets developing their own atomic bomb, Mao’s toppling of the nationalist government in China and other changes in the world order, McCarthy hurled unfounded accusations at those who served the United States honorably in war and peace. Making it up as he went along, McCarthy, in a ’51 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, waved a piece of paper that he said contained the names of 205 known Communists working in the State Department. Not even George Marshall, the Five Star General who Winston Churchill called the “organizer of victory” in World War II, was invulnerable to McCarthy’s lying rants. Sadly, in a changing world with threats, perceived and actual, millions of Americans bought into McCarthy’s fabrications, so much so that even General Dwight David Eisenhower, the 1952 Republican presidential nominee, campaigning in Wisconsin, failed to speak on Marshall’s behalf.

McCarthy implied that Marshall, as President Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of Defense, was guilty of treason while taking part in “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.” Eisenhower, who thought of McCarthy as “a pimple on the path of progress,” had prepared remarks in praise of Marshall for his Milwaukee appearance, but his handlers panicked and convinced him to remove them from the speech. Eisenhower was unhappy over the deletions. Others, well familiar with the role in history Eisenhower shared with Marshall, were indignant, President Truman especially.

When Truman heard of Eisenhower buckling under, he couldn’t contain his outrage. In a Utica, New York speech, Truman let fly against Eisenhower for betraying his principles.

He knew — and he knows today — that General Marshall’s patriotism is above question… (he) knows, or he ought to know, how completely dishonest McCarthy is. He ought to despise McCarthy, just as I expected him to — and just as I do.

Now in his bid for votes, he has endorsed Joe McCarthy for reelection — and humbly thanked him for riding on his train.

I had never thought the man who is now the Republican candidate would stoop so low. I have thought about this a great deal. I don’t ever think I shall understand it.

Truman later spoke of how Marshall was “responsible for (Eisenhower’s) whole career,” remembering Marshall had arranged for President Roosevelt to promote Eisenhower three different times. Truman’s criticism angered Eisenhower, and by that time their relationship, once cordial, had soured.  Eisenhower spoke of  “the mess in Washington” the outgoing president was leaving, while Truman thought the General was grandstanding with his “I will go to Korea” declaration. Yet even if he didn’t like hearing it from Truman, Eisenhower knew he was wrong in not speaking up for his old friend and fellow General. Cheap moves carry a high price.

The election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980, along with his reelection 4 years later, brought an ardently right-wing cast of characters to the American political scene. Names like Oliver North, John Poindexter, James Watt and Robert Bork educe memories of how America nearly fell for a new variation on McCarthyism. Thankfully, elections are held every two years in the US, allowing for a check on swings taken by the body politic. Democrats like Tip O’Neil, Ted Kennedy and moderate Republicans such as Lowell Weicker and Bob Packwood kept the Reaganites from achieving their most radical objectives, but still it was a worrisome time. Supporting Reagan was the emerging Christian Right, with fraud clerics Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson proselytizing at will, prepared to knock down the wall separating church and state. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe observed the shifts in the national direction, and thought the bad old days were returning, hence the song, “Exhuming McCarthy.” Stipe concluded, “It’s the 1980s and McCarthy’s coming back, so why not dig him up?”

“Exhuming McCarthy” is one of several overtly political songs on R.E.M.’s Document album, released in September ’87. As Stipe sang on “Fireplace,” another track from Document, it was a “crazy, crazy time.” During that time, Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork defended his “originalist” views of the Constitution, which he believed did not guarantee Americans a right to privacy. Given that a ruling discussed in the Bork hearings dealt with the right of married couples in Connecticut to use contraceptives, Bork appeared silly and dangerous at the same time. Thankfully, he never appeared as a Supreme Court Justice, his nomination rejected by the Senate.

A Sign Of The Times . . .  “By jingo,” Stipe sings in “Exhuming McCarthy.” Jingoism, or belligerent nationalism, was an issue in America once again; the lessons of Vietnam not retained. “Welcome To The Occupation,” another outstanding track on Document, drew attention to the Reaganites’ support of the Contras, the anti-communist mercenaries seeking to topple the Sandanista government in Nicaragua. The occupation R.E.M. observed was one in which America’s backing of the Contras, called “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers” by Reagan, was inconsistent with the nation’s ideals, especially those that championed human rights. The Contras were known for such abuses as decapitating, castrating and mutilating civilians and foreign aid workers. It was the effort to fund and arm the Contras that drove Marine Lieutenant Oliver North, in one of his secret government expeditions to violate the Boland Amendment, legislation signed by President Reagan in December ’82.

Testifying before Congress in July ’87, less than two months before the release of Document,  North, dismissed by Reagan the previous November, appeared as the Marine from central casting as he explained and defended selling arms to the Iranians and then using the proceeds to fund the Contras. North thought the Iran-Contra funding scheme a “neat idea.” Not only did many Americans agree with North, they also embraced him as a hero. Earlier that year, journalist Nick G. Petros of the Chicago Tribune took issue with the adulation North was rendered.

“If Ollie North is a hero, then Joe McCarthy must be a saint. It’s a shame we haven’t learned anything from the paranoid, witch-hunting days when the Reds were in every closet or under every bed, when the right-wing nuts were heroes and everyone else was a commie-pinko.”

In the summer of ’87, McCarthy had been dead for 30 years but McCarthyism still lived in the hearts of many misguided American “patriots.” That is, despite the nationally  televised admonition McCarthy received in June ’54 from the Army’s chief legal representative, Joseph Nye Welch (Yes, McCarthy had been investigating supposed communist infiltration in the U.S. Army as well.). In the Army hearings, McCarthy suggested Fred Fisher, a  lawyer in Boston, should be investigated for his work with the National Lawyers Guild, which had been called “the legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party.” That was the tipping point. Exasperated, Welch responded, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really grasped your cruelty or your recklessness.” McCarthy, hardly chastened, continued his attack, but Welch interrupted him, calling for an end to the character assassination. “You’ve done enough, ” Welch said. Then he appealed in a mournful tone to the senator, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” The summation by Welch signaled the beginning of McCarthy’s end. In December, he would be censured by his colleagues in the U.S. Senate.

During the 27-second instrumental break of “Exhuming McCarthy” is a recording of the solemn pleadings by Joseph Nye Welch that helped lift a burden from America’s shoulders. Welch, unlike a McCarthy or North, possessed a strong grasp of America’s best qualities. His call for decency is remembered time and again when America works to overcome those who use lies and scare tactics to further their warped political visions.“zu’ve done enough, ” Welch said. Then he appealed in a mournful tone to the senator, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” The summation by Welch signaled the beginning of McCarthy’s end. In December, he would be censured by his colleagues in the U.S. Senate.

Look Who Bought The Myth . . .  One such political vision, as warped as a vinyl record album left in the broiling heat, belongs to Paul Broun (rhymes with clown), the former Congressman from Georgia’s 10th District. Deep in the heart of Broun’s bailiwick, which stretches to the northeastern Georgia border, is Athens, Georgia, the home base for R.E.M..

In February 2011 Broun made an appearance at a town hall meeting in Oglethorpe County, not far from Athens. At the meeting, an elderly gentleman stood up and asked “Who’s going to shoot Obama?” Given the vitriolic things Broun had said about President Obama, perhaps the old man thought the Congressman was there to form a posse. Broun responded to the question, not by condemning it, but according to Blake Aued of the Athens Banner-Herald, by first chuckling, then saying, The thing is, I know there’s a lot of frustration with this president. We’re going to have an election next year. Hopefully, we’ll elect somebody that’s going to be a conservative, limited-government president that will take a smaller, who will sign a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.”

Three days later Broun issued a statement claiming he was “stunned” by the elderly man’s question and “chose not to dignify it with a response; therefore, at that moment I moved on to the next person with a question. After the event my office took action with the appropriate authorities.” Broun then went on to condemn “all statements – made in sincerity or jest – that threaten or suggest the use of violence against the President of the United States.” He finished by declaring “Such rhetoric cannot and will not be tolerated,” although apparently it was.

One can just imagine the umbrage taken if someone like Harry Truman had been there. In 1962, the former president was speaking at the University of Southern California. When it was time for questions, a student asked Truman what he thought of “our local yokel,” referring to California’s governor, Pat Brown. Truman didn’t offer an assessment of Governor Brown. Instead he told the young man it was shameful to speak of the governor in such a disrespectful way, even if he disagreed with his politics. The student, suddenly remorseful, broke into tears. To his lasting credit, Truman went to speak and shake hands with the student after the session, and according to Truman biographer Merle Miller, the young man and Truman developed a friendship, exchanging letters over time.

No doubt Truman could express his frustration, with a few choice words, over politicians but he likely would have been shocked at the invectives Congressman Paul Brown hurled Obama’s way. Shortly after his election in 2008, Obama called for a civilian national service corps. Broun suggested Obama might use the corps to establish a Marxist dictatorship, saying, “that’s exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it’s exactly what the Soviet Union did.”

Just as McCarthy did in his attacks on General George Marshall and others, Broun relied on stories conjured out of thin air to blast his political opponents, not simply stopping with President Obama, but going back to FDR. Less than two months after the infamous town hall meeting, Broun claimed FDR sent his advisors to the Soviet Union so they could study socialism with dictator Josef Stalin. From there, FDR could implement similar policies for his New Deal. PolitiFact investigated Broun’s claims by calling his office. A Broun staffer said proof of the Soviet field trip could be found in The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, a 2007 book by Amity Shlaes that takes issue with New Dealers.

The Georgia PolitiFact reporters read the book and found not even a suggestion that Roosevelt sent his aides to study Soviet-styled Communism. Ms. Shlaes did write that some future New Dealers made a harmless trip to the Soviet Union independently in 1927; that being a year before FDR ran for Governor in New York, five years before he was elected President and more importantly, two years before the Stock Market crash in 1929, which had a part in the Great Depression that got Roosevelt elected president, and in the New Deal programs he implemented.*

Hang Your Freedom Higher . . .  The people of Oglethorpe County and elsewhere in the 10th Congressional District deserved better than Paul Broun. After all, on R.E.M.’s “Can’t Get There From Here,” Oglethorpe County’s Philomath community was heralded as a place to seek inspiration. As Michael Stipe sang, in Philomath, “they know the lowdown.” Sadly, the “lowdown” wasn’t embraced enough in Northeast Georgia counties. Although Broun became a former congressman in 2015 after losing a primary for an open U.S. Senate seat, his place in Congress was filled by another delusional Republican, Jody Hice (rhymes with lice). The attempts to exhume McCarthy continue.

*According to Politifact, Ms. Shlaes said “she knew of no evidence that Roosevelt sent his aides to study communism in the Soviet Union to “replicate it here in the United States.” Perhaps Broun and his staff were confused, given that some of the academics, writers, economists, businessmen, and labor officials visiting the U.S.S.R. in 1927 sailed from New York aboard the President Roosevelt, named for Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th President.

Author’s Note: Many fine books on the subjects covered in this story proved helpful to the author. The books include “The Forgotten Man” by Amity Shlaes, “Plain Speaking” by Merle Miller, “The Glory and the Dream” by William Manchester, “Marshall, Hero for Our Times” by Leonard Mosley, “The Fifties” by David Halberstam, “Ronald Reagan, The Role of A Lifetime” by Lou Cannon and “Reveal, The Story Of R.E.M.,” by Johnny Black. Also thanks go out to my friend, Stephen Pagano, who named a son after Marshall, and encouraged me to read more on the great General.