Left for Red

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

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.

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.

Perhaps Buckley's deep emotional connection to the issues explains some curious lapses in style. Or maybe, despite a series of enjoyable and literate spy novels, he has decided that if he can't sell as well as Tom Clancy, he can certainly write as badly. Or perhaps Buckley's cultural politics collide with his geopolitics: His trademark grandiloquence--my favorite example in this book being the word anfractuosities, a monstrosity I have neither seen nor heard of anywhere else in my life--works against him, since McCarthy conspicuously cast himself against snooty Anglophilic Easterners. What's the difference between sissy Dean Acheson, who uses words like vitiates here, and our author, who's done a lot worse? In any case, the prose throughout this volume is hasty and flat; it feels desiccated, as if pinned to the page like a moth and left there to shrivel.

When J. Edgar Hoover sits McCarthy down for a meal and offers him the ABCs of anti-Communism, for instance, Buckley seems to be in a hurry to get to his own dinner: "The director went on through the cocktail hour, through dinner, and for an hour after dinner. He spoke of the loyalty/security problem in the federal government. That was of course basic, he said. But it went beyond loyalty/security."

And he didn't exactly slave over the dialogue either: "Good thing I've known you since Andover, Andrew. I might otherwise take offense. You've been reading too many of McCarthy's speeches, is my guess. They seem to encourage Americans to believe that when things get bad it's because we Democrats want them to get bad. But--to change the subject sharply: How's Alice doing?" Is this lazy or stupid? As the joke goes, I don't know and I don't care. Any way you slice it, The Redhunter is dubious as politics, skimpy as pleasure, and truly vicious in its declarations of love and hate--it's bad in every way a book can be.

Glancing across the battlefield, we might equally well ask, How's Alger doing? The Rosenbergs may have galvanized protests outside prison gates, but the Hiss case provided the clearest snapshot of the social chasm between the McCarthyites and their victims--and, not incidentally, gave us a redhunter named Nixon to kick around for more than four decades. Hiss's defenders included Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a character witness at his trials, and urbane Secretary of State Dean Acheson, also a longtime acquaintance. Even today Hiss's name can incite howls of outrage: When his son Tony was announced as the author of a regional conservation plan in northern New York State in the mid-1980s, one man in the crowd yelled, "You let that communist write your report!"

But there are hard questions to ask about Alger Hiss, not all of which his son answers in his new book The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir (Knopf). The recently released Venona Project files, the product of a top-secret counterintelligence operation that intercepted cable traffic between Washington and Moscow, reveal fairly conclusively that Alger spied for Soviet intelligence from his perch in the State Department. To which Tony Hiss only replies that if so, it's news to him: "There is no way to squeeze together the translucent father I got to know and the monstrous Alger that [Hiss's accuser, Whittaker] Chambers talked and wrote about." Both father and son lambaste Chambers, father as "seriously disturbed" and son as the writer of "a vendetta presenting itself as a life." Tony Hiss also suggests that his father was unlikely to be a Communist because he had already ascended into the educational and political elite and thus needed no group affirmation from left-wing cells. Further, he was warm, loving, generous to everyone he met, a good listener, "playful, sweet, and gleeful." In prison he taught mobsters to read, appreciated sunsets, and organized birthday parties. His worst traits, apparently, were a stiff public demeanor and an unswerving faith in the system and the general goodness of other people.  

All of which may well be true. Any child would love to receive Alger Hiss's warm, caring letters from prison: He told stories that gently reassured his son about his inabilities and encouraged him to cultivate the best in himself. (This is the rare contemporary memoir in which family represents hope rather than disaster.)

All of which is also beside the point. Tony Hiss observes that his father had to "pay a price" only if he was actually guilty of something; an innocent man owes nothing to anyone. If Alger Hiss did prove to have been a spy, though--what then? Did he damage American interests? Did he betray freedom fighters abroad at the exact time that Stalin was consolidating his grip on Eastern Europe? Did he materially advance the cause of totalitarianism? Did his 44-month sentence exact sufficient punishment? Few voices in the current debate over the Communist past seem to have entertained such questions. Was he or wasn't he? we want to know, as if the simple yes or no is an answer in itself.

"People's affections," Tony Hiss writes at one point, "are stronger than those forces that might tear the world to pieces." His moving book, a fitting memorial to a seemingly decent man--and certainly a good father--rummages through the author's own youthful memories (with occasional detours to the present) to make that point admirably. But the essential question emerging from both books remains unanswered: How do we cope when affection and world-tearing events collide, when those we love also do great wrong? We now understand a great deal more about the postwar anti-Communist fever, but we still haven't resolved that controversy. Archives aren't the solution; this is something that must be worked out in our heads and hearts--and perhaps only when Communism itself has passed beyond memory.

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