Left for Red

William F. Buckley rehabilitates the image of Senator McCarthy; Tony Hiss defends his family name

These days you need a scorecard to track the rising and falling reputations of American Cold War celebrities. Eisenhower, once scorned as a bumbling golfer repeatedly outwitted by more savvy politicians, now wins praise for his canny behind-the-scenes manipulations (he talked tough in public and negotiated in private to forestall further intensification of the Cold War, for instance). Truman, previously a peppery civil rights firebrand, gets the blame today for seeding the ground for McCarthyism with 1947's Executive Order 9835, which instituted the first federal loyalty program. And as more and more Eastern European archives see the light of day, longtime lefty causes célèbres like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg turn out to have been, whoops, guilty as charged. Even the hard-core anti-Communist Right's seeming paranoia has to a large extent been borne out--J. Edgar Hoover's "masters of deceit" in fact did honeycomb official Washington, especially in the years before World War II.

But no one has tried very hard to rehabilitate the man whose name has been, accurately or not, affixed to the period as a whole. For good reason: Sen. Joseph McCarthy--liar, rogue, and drunk--remains a subject of well-earned dislike among historians and the educated public. At the height of his hubris, McCarthy decreed that two million federal employees must disobey their supervisors and take any suspicions straight to him--a mere token of the damage done to democracy by his wild tirades and willful manhandling of basic constitutional safeguards.

McCarthy does maintain at least one loyal lieutenant in the person of William F. Buckley, the American Right's one-man PR agency, who has crusaded for Tail-Gunner Joe since his heyday. In the 1953 screed McCarthy and His Enemies, Buckley celebrated McCarthyism as "a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks." Whether they regard McCarthy as friend or foe, longtime Buckley watchers will no doubt be pleased to learn from The Redhunter (Little, Brown) that intervening events have only solidified the author's declarations of faith.

I have in my hand a list of obscure words: Fanciful McCarthy defender William F. Buckley
I have in my hand a list of obscure words: Fanciful McCarthy defender William F. Buckley

Fictionalizing McCarthy through the latter-day perspective of former aide Harry Bontecou, an idealistic WW II veteran-turned-college professor, Buckley is now willing to grant that the senator may have been, in today's parlance, ethically challenged. But for him that only makes Joe more appealing: He's a typically, lovably American self-maker, a Red-hunting Gatsbyesque scamp whose only real sin, like Gatsby's, was the wrong choice of companions. Early in the novel, McCarthy is glimpsed scribbling resolutions in the leaf of one of his books, much as fellow Midwesterner James Gatz ordained his regimen of self-improvement.

For the most part, Buckley sounds as befuddled by Joe's opposition as McCarthy revealed himself to be. (After his public rebuke from Joseph Welch--the famous "have you no sense of decency?" speech, one whose course Buckley thoroughly falsifies--McCarthy wondered "What'd I do?") Again and again Buckley plays dumb: "Some people seemed to hate Joe McCarthy," he writes, and "Joe McCarthy off stage was pleasant by nature, and uninhibited." Is the joke on us, or the author?

The worst sin Buckley ascribes to his hero--and that's probably the best word for it--seems to be bad speechmaking, quite vividly captured as "a monotone problem," "as ever in a monotone," and, surprise, "almost always in the same tone of voice." But at root Joe's accusations represent only "a little color." As Bontecou reminds himself when he doubts the cause, his boss is "an apple-pie great American" who wants nothing more than to save the greatest nation in the world from the scourge of international Communism.

Buckley's politics are, well, Buckley's politics, and he has certainly held them long enough to dismiss any charges of opportunism or bandwagon jumping. Still, even for him it takes real chutzpah to lionize someone so deservedly consigned to the dustbin of history. What's next, George Wallace: Friend to Puppies and Small Boys? But the truly telling details, edging into the margins, push this book beyond mere political revision toward something uglier. Apparently uncomfortable with today's "compassionate conservatism," which has little use for McCarthyist resentments, Buckley opts for more traditional small-town intolerance.

There's anti-Semitism: Guess who's really to blame for McCarthy's fall? It's swarthy, scheming fag Roy Cohn and his boy David Schine. Be sure not to miss Buckley's gratuitous swipe at the propensity of "Lippmann and his tribe" to defend Alger Hiss, too. (Let's hope fellow traveler Norman Podhoretz, who was kind enough to blurb this book, felt some discomfort, deep down, when he read those words.) There's patronizing racism: The only black character in the book, an "old colored fellow," shuffles onstage to expound a child's wisdom. "Is it true there's people who want to overthrow the government by force and violence?" he innocently asks. "Well, Professor, why don't we just run them out of town?"

But the prize for unwitting self-revelation goes to homoerotic male bonding worthy of Eve Sedgwick (unlike, of course, the bad kind, about which see Roy Cohn, above). When McCarthy meets retired knight Whittaker Chambers, the two lock hands and eyes in Red-hunting brotherhood. "I would really like it if you would...think of me as Joe," our hero says, a catch in his throat. Later, Cohn's ascension to favorite son having been "consummated," Bontecou announces, "I got to leave you, Joe." Rewriting the family romance of American anti-Communism as thoroughly WASP and masculine (terms he more or less equates), Buckley sometimes lets his urbane mask slip a bit too far. Recall that famous episode in which, taunted to the breaking point by the equally patrician Gore Vidal, he gave in: "you...queer!" he snarled, his oft-brandished sesquipedalianism deserting him.

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