The late Senator Joseph McCarthy was born in Wisconsin in the town of Grand Chute—French for “great fall.” He would indeed suffer a great fall, tumbling from the heights of power and prominence in the 1950s to an ignominious end, the disgraced namesake of an ugly set of political tactics known as McCarthyism.
How McCarthy (1908-1957) ascended to power as an anti-Communist crusader, then presided over a campaign of fear and intimidation, is told in the documentary McCarthy, written, directed and produced by Sharon Grimberg. The film, which aired as part of the PBS history series American Experience, is now contending for Emmy nominations in multiple categories including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, directing, writing, editing, music composition and other honors.
“The film presents a picture of McCarthy as I think he was, as just an ambitious and very energetic, but a reckless and power-hungry man,” Grimberg tells Deadline. “And yet there were all these people who did believe in him.”
McCarthy was first elected to the Senate in 1946, but initially made little impact other than to offend legislators, even fellow Republicans, by paying no heed to Senate traditions and standards of behavior.
“He had this very unsuccessful first few years in the Senate and really needed something. There were a few informal advisors who thought…the anti-Communist thing might be his ticket to reelection,” Grimberg explains. “He was kind of desperate. He needed something to wow people.”
Wow people he did, the film shows, with a speech in 1950 at an obscure political event in Wheeling, West Virginia where he reputedly declared the State Department to be infested with 205 “known Communists.”
“I think partly it made such a big splash because it was so specific—205 people in the State Department. It just felt like he must have something,” Grimberg comments. “It was such an outrageous and inflammatory claim that people couldn’t ignore it.”
There was only one problem.
“He basically made it up,” the director says. “There were a lot of very kind of vague accusations that floated around in those days. And [McCarthy] had seen this list of names, but the list was very old. He had no idea if the people had been cleared or had been fired, so it was completely made up.”
There was an element of the absurd to McCarthy’s modus operandi that got overlooked in the hysteria over possible Communist subversion.
“McCarthy went on to Denver and other places afterwards, and journalists would say to him, ‘Well, can we see the list? Where’s the list?’” Grimberg notes. “And he would say things like, ‘Oh, it’s in my packed luggage…I don’t have it on me.’ He was very good at lying and then coming up with the next thing, so that journalists would be diverted from what he’d said previously. His numbers kept changing. It was 205, and then it was 187. He just kept people off balance the whole time.”
As the documentary explores, McCarthy first rode his hobby horse through a Senate subcommittee organized to investigate his allegations. There he trotted out names of people he accused of being traitors or spies, many of whom had no connection to the State Department.
“They were school teachers or engineers. These people lost their jobs, they lost their family and their communities,” Grimberg notes. “He had no compunction…It was horrible what he did and ruined people’s lives.”
The subcommittee ultimately issued a report calling McCarthy’s accusations a “fraud and a hoax,” but the junior senator was just getting started. After the 1952 election, when Republicans won the presidency and both houses of Congress, McCarthy took chairmanship of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, hiring as chief counsel a young Roy Cohn, who had cut his teeth prosecuting the espionage case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
“Cohn’s personality and aggressiveness appealed to McCarthy,” observes Grimberg. “And also Cohn was way more organized than McCarthy. He kind of chose who to go after and he just kept the thing going.”
Unlike many American Experience films, there is no “voice of God” narration on McCarthy. Grimberg tells the story purely through interviews with historians, people who knew the senator, and dramatic archival material.
“There was never a camera [McCarthy] didn’t like being in front of, so we were very lucky in that way,” Grimberg comments. “He sought out the press, he sought out the media.”
But McCarthy also shows how the senator turned against the media when it suited him.
“[Journalist] James Wechsler was called up in front of McCarthy’s committee for criticizing McCarthy. McCarthy called the Wisconsin papers ‘allies of the Communists.’ He really attacked the press,” Grimberg recounts. “The press is an institution that ensures democratic institutions are held accountable. And if you attack the press, then you undermine democracy. McCarthy did that, and I think we see something similar today.”
The film does not explicitly draw parallels to our current politics, but they were clear to many critics who reviewed McCarthy. Grimberg expanded on her perspective with Deadline.
“McCarthy thrived on falsehoods, completely thrived, one falsehood after another, and created a world in which there was no reality…And I think we see the same today,” the director asserts, adding, “There were Republicans in the Senate during the McCarthy era who knew McCarthy was a liar, who knew he was reckless and not very controllable, but they could see he had tapped into something and that he was increasing the popularity of the Republican party, and they did not speak up. They did not speak up for almost four years. And then, finally, some of them did…and effectively helped to stop him.”
In Grimberg’s view there are important lessons to be drawn from this disturbing chapter in American history.
“I think we learn that from McCarthy’s story—democracy is precious, and it’s fragile, and it needs to be protected, and it needs all of our vigilance to protect it,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s [on] shaky foundations, and it will collapse.”