The Army-McCarthy hearings of spring 1954 have been called “the first great made-for-TV political spectacle,” and under hot TV lights in a jammed Senate caucus room this Washington miniseries hit its boiling point 50 years ago.
The unforeseen war of words the afternoon of June 9, 1954, marked the live-on-TV downfall of an era-defining demagogue, Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And it sealed a symbiotic bond between government and television that has grown only stronger in the half-century since.
McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, chaired the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. His ferocious inquiries, while popular with an anxious public, were denounced by critics as a communist witch hunt. His taste for smearing the targets of his anti-communist campaign, whether guilty or not, spawned the term “McCarthyism.”
But despite his previous use of televised speeches and news conferences to win support from the commie-fearing electorate, McCarthy was, ironically, about to be undone by TV’s exposure during this, the 30th of 36 days of broadcast hearings into “red influence” in the Army.
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” erupted Joseph Welch, a Boston attorney representing the Army, as he lit into McCarthy. The watching world gasped. No one talked that way to “Tailgunner Joe.”
But Welch had been interrupted during his cross-examination of Roy Cohn, a key McCarthy aide. Butting in, McCarthy had accused Welch of trying to “foist on the committee” a young attorney from his own law firm who had communist ties — or so McCarthy said.
Welch was near tears of righteous outrage at McCarthy’s attack.
'Have you no sense of decency, sir?'
“Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator,” said Welch, about to earn himself entry in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of honor?”
After Welch’s dressing-down and a burst of applause from the gallery, the rattled McCarthy turned to Cohn and said, “What happened?”
This is what happened: The spell of indomitability that TV helped create for him had been broken for all to see, while it happened, on coast-to-coast TV.
From that moment on, McCarthy lost his standing with the public. Charging him with abuse of his legislative powers, the Senate censured him a few months later. In May 1957, he died at age 48 of liver failure.
Media scholar Ben Bagdikian covered the hearings as a reporter for The Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin.
“McCarthy was an important part of post-World War II history as television became a major instrument of American politics, with all of its sins and advantages,” says Bagdikian, now 84.
The hearings, he adds, “were the first demonstration of how melodrama in politics was made for television. The hearings were great drama, and television ate it up.”
Setting the stage for TV coverage
As the first nationally televised congressional inquiry, it set the stage for TV-political co-productions to come, including the Watergate, Iran-Contra and Thomas-Hill hearings. In each case, the enabling presence of TV cameras did more than cover the event. TV also drove it.
Like Watergate’s Sam Ervin or Iran-Contra’s Oliver North, the Army-McCarthy hearings boasted a colorful cast of characters, and none more so than McCarthy and Welch. As any viewer could see, they were a study in contrasts: the erudite, patrician Welch vs. McCarthy, a roughneck who gloried in his lack of refinement.
“I felt that if the public could see just how McCarthy operated, they would understand just how ridiculous a figure he really was,” the late ABC network President Leonard Goldenson wrote in his 1991 memoir, explaining his decision to air the hearings gavel-to-gavel.
The cost for ABC to telecast the 188 hours of hearings was “upward of $600,000, which we could ill afford then,” he wrote.
But as a struggling also-ran, ABC didn’t have a popular daytime schedule. So while CBS and NBC stuck to their lucrative schedules with shows like “Ding Dong School,” “The Big Payoff” and “The Guiding Light,” ABC was drawing an unaccustomed crowd of some 20 million viewers who thrilled to its brand-new counterprogramming.
Walter Bernstein was among the avid viewers. A rising TV writer who had briefly joined the Communist Party a decade earlier, he was among the scores of actors, directors and writers branded subversives during the “red scare” that McCarthy had helped stir up.
Bernstein’s future credits would include the screenplay for the 1964 film “Fail Safe” and its TV version with George Clooney four years ago.
But in the 1950s, he was forced into the shadows. He sold his scripts through a go-between who, taking Bernstein’s writing credit, served as his secret surrogate. It was a masquerade that inspired “The Front,” his 1976 comedy starring Woody Allen.
Thinking back to the hearings, Bernstein, now 84, cautions that the blacklists didn’t instantly vanish 50 years ago today. But what he saw that afternoon “gave everybody a lift: that someone like Welch would take McCarthy on.”
It was a great day for the nation, in most people’s eyes — and great TV.