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Downing a demagogue

Downing a demagogue

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Of all the battles waged by The Capital Times against corrupt politicians and practices, none loomed more important in the history of the newspaper than that of the battle against Joseph R. McCarthy as he made his way from being an obscure judge to a U.S. senator of demagogic proportions who gave his name to a new "ism."

Long before McCarthy came under attack for his reckless labeling of various Americans as Communists or their sympathizers, William T. Evjue and The Capital Times had been exposing his wrongdoings, first as a judge, then as a U.S. senator.

And The Capital Times was among the first to recognize the ultimate political irony in Wisconsin and perhaps the nation, that McCarthy had managed the seemingly impossible, the unseating of the veteran and highly respected U.S. Sen. Robert La Follette Jr., with the aide of Wisconsin Communists. McCarthy, of course, would spend the next decade branding people as Communists and demanding their ouster from countless institutions.

The man who would become the ultimate red-baiter in the Senate got there because of the help of Communists who had taken control of the Milwaukee branch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a union federation.

La Follette Jr., or "Young Bob" as he was widely known, had won a special election in 1925 to fill the seat held by his father, Robert La Follette Sr., who had died on June 18 of that year. Young La Follette had run as a Republican, then was re-elected twice on the Wisconsin Progressive Party ticket. After the Progressive Party disbanded in 1946, he decided to return to his family's roots in the Republican Party. The GOP was the dominant party in Wisconsin in those days but had been split between the Progressives led by the La Follettes and others and the old guard, or Stalwarts as they were called.

McCarthy, with the urging of Republican Stalwart leader Thomas Coleman, took on Young Bob in the GOP primary of 1946 and was given substantial backing by the party. In fact, at the GOP convention the party took the then-unusual step of giving its official endorsement to McCarthy for the U.S. Senate and to Delbert J. Kenny of West Bend for governor even though its own party incumbent, Walter S. Goodland, was running for re-election.

McCarthy had never before run in a statewide election and had a tainted reputation as a circuit judge - he had been strongly rebuked by the state Supreme Court in 1941 for destroying a court reporter's notes in a case involving the state Department of Agriculture's enforcement of its rules for operating dairies. But when the dust settled after the Senate primary election, McCarthy had scored a narrow victory over Young Bob, by a margin of 5,378 votes out of a total of 410,492 cast.

That Communists played a key role in McCarthy's victory can be seen in the vote totals from southeast Wisconsin, where the CIO was controlled by Communists and where it had heavy influence among industrial workers. La Follette had always carried Milwaukee County, but in this election he lost to McCarthy by more than 10,000 votes. In Racine La Follette lost by more than 1,000 votes while in Kenosha he lost by 166 votes.

Many labor leaders in southeast Wisconsin would go on record with almost identical sentiments about the primary election of August 1946.

Harvey Klitzman, director of Region 10 of the United Auto Workers, said bluntly: "The Communists certainly did defeat La Follette and elect McCarthy." His remarks were echoed by other labor leaders, all of whom were subsequently forced out of their union posts due to the influence of the Communists in the Milwaukee organization on the national CIO. Herman Steffes, who later became president of the CIO, said of the 1946 election, "the Communists were definitely responsible for the election of McCarthy."

McCarthy, meanwhile, had not yet developed his rabid distaste for communism or its backers. When asked about Communist support in the election he replied "They have the same right to vote as anyone else."

Stunned by the defeat of La Follette, Evjue and The Capital Times began a close examination of McCarthy and his record.

Born in Grand Chute outside of Appleton, McCarthy got his start in politics as a Democrat, heading the Young Democrats in the old Seventh Congressional District. His first run for office, for district attorney of Shawano County, was unsuccessful.

In 1939, not yet 30 years old, McCarthy decided to run for the Circuit Court bench and took on veteran 10th Circuit Judge Edgar V. Werner, who had been on the bench for 24 years and was chairman of the Board of Circuit Judges for Wisconsin. McCarthy, showing early signs of the demagoguery that would one day make him famous, lied about the judge's age as well as his courtroom practices, and won the election.

After joining the Marines in 1942, McCarthy decided to take on incumbent Alexander Wiley in the Republican primary of 1944 for the U.S. Senate.

But that posed the first of many moral and legal challenges that McCarthy would face over the next dozen years, and that would be exposed by The Capital Times and others. The state constitution, which McCarthy was sworn to uphold as a judge, said a judge could not run for any office other than a judicial one during the period for which he was elected.

Despite that constitutional prohibition, McCarthy made his run against Wiley, who beat McCarthy handily 52 percent to 27 percent, with the remainder of the votes split between two other candidates.

Writing later in The Capital Times, Miles McMillin said it was obvious that McCarthy, although still in the Marines in the Pacific theater, began campaigning immediately after that defeat for the run against La Follette in 1946. During and after that campaign, in which McCarthy tossed out a few bombs labeling his foes Communists, three legal challenges were brought against McCarthy for running for a partisan office while still serving as a judge.

McCarthy said he saw no conflict, but the courts did, even though the state Supreme Court thrice decided it could do nothing to actually stop McCarthy's candidacy, saying the issue was one for the U.S. Senate to decide. The court, as The Capital Times pointed out, refused to consider arguments that the U.S. Congress had already voted on the issue when it approved Wisconsin's constitution at the time statehood was granted.

Although McCarthy at times called his 1946 Democratic opponent, Howard McMurray, a Communist, he did not adopt that as his principle play for power and prestige until he met in 1950 with supporters at the Colony Club in Washington, D.C., according to Evjue in his book, "Fighting Editor." McCarthy confided to his dinner companions that he needed an issue, because he was in trouble back home. "They urged him to use the Communist issue, unaware that they were pushing into his hands an issue that would shake the foundations of the American system of government," Evjue wrote.

McCarthy had tried out the Communist smear in Wisconsin earlier, attacking his opponents with it, and in a speech to the Madison Shriners on Armistice Day of 1949 he leveled a broadside at his old nemesis, The Capital Times. McCarthy called city editor Cedric Parker a "known Communist" and said the newspaper led by William T. Evjue followed "the communist line right down to the last period."

As usual, McCarthy's attack mixed a small amount of truth with a lot of pure fiction. Parker had indeed leaned toward communism as a youthful reporter, and Evjue had even labeled him so. And Parker had called his boss a "warmonger" in 1940 when Evjue talked of the necessity of becoming involved in World War II.

McCarthy's attack on Parker, Evjue and The Capital Times was met head-on by editorials in The Capital Times in which Evjue called McCarthy's attack a "frantic note" by McCarthy, who encountered a rapid slip in public esteem. "And the reason he has slipped is that The Capital Times has exposed his activities to the public just as we have exposed Communists in this state," Evjue said in his "Hello Wisconsin" radio broadcast days later.

Members of the newspaper staff, in a letter circulated by reporter and columnist Sterling Sorensen and signed by staff members, were more pointed in their defense of both Parker and the newspaper. The letter said those reporters who worked day-to-day for Parker knew that McCarthy's charges against Parker and Evjue were baseless and said the staff would not sit idly by when the paper was smeared. "That The Capital Times is, as Sen. McCarthy has alleged, 'a disguised poisoned waterhole of dangerous communist propaganda,' is too outrageous to countenance by reply," the letter said. "Those who write for this newspaper know this to be a lie, made by a desperate man who has not even a nodding acquaintance with facts."

In his book "A Conspiracy So Immense," author David Oshinsky said of McCarthy's attack on The Capital Times: "It was a virtuoso performance, clearly blurring all distinctions between fact and fiction," and typical of McCarthy's tactics.

The Capital Times had by then disclosed numerous questionable practices by McCarthy, including his granting of "quickie" divorces to campaign contributors; his avoidance of paying income taxes on huge stock market earnings, which led to investigations and fines by both federal and state tax investigators; questionable donations to his 1944 campaign against Wiley in which several of his relatives were listed as having donated more than they made that year, the implication being the money was laundered by McCarthy; his doctoring of his rather ordinary war record to make it appear he was a tail-gunner on combat missions; violations of the constitutional provision against running for political office while holding a judicial post; the use by his campaign staff of Circuit Court stationery to raise campaign funds; his acceptance of "payments" by major corporations that had business before his Senate committee; and of course, the role played by Communists in McCarthy's victory over La Follette in 1946.

As he did with other opponents, McCarthy responded by labeling the paper "communist."

But the senator achieved re-election in 1952 with an easy win in a six-way Republican primary, then went on to defeat Thomas Fairchild in the general election.

Despite the victory, however, some danger signs arose. McCarthy defeated Fairchild, but in doing so received fewer votes than any other Republican on the statewide ticket. And there were bitter words from state Democratic chairman James E. Doyle, the father of the current governor. "To McCarthy: war unto the death," said the senior Doyle.

That 1952 election came after McCarthy had launched his national anti-Communist hunt with his famous speech in 1950 in Wheeling, W.V., in which he waived a piece of paper and claimed he had the names of 205 "known Communists" in the State Department.

"How long is this fellow McCarthy to be permitted to toy with the prestige and majesty of the great state of Wisconsin?" Evjue asked in his "Hello Wisconsin" Sunday address on numerous Wisconsin radio stations.

McCarthy continued his attacks by labeling many others as Communists, whether or not they deserved such a label. In 1951, when most media were continuing to unquestioningly report the senator's charges, Evjue made a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Harry Truman. "I could not believe the extent to which McCarthy had paralyzed official Washington with fear when I went there," Evjue would later recall in his autobiography.

Evjue warned Truman and the Capitol press corps of McCarthy's record, and the next day McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate to once again excoriate the paper, which he took to calling the "Prairie Pravda" in his denunciations. One of the first Washington news correspondents who Evjue was able to convince of McCarthy's danger to democracy was columnist Drew Pearson, who began to criticize the senator. McCarthy responded by kneeing Pearson in the groin at a Washington party.

Meanwhile, McCarthy's use of the media in Senate hearings in which he would label others as Communists was garnering headlines across the country, even though many of his attacks lacked specifics.

But cracks began to appear in the McCarthy armor, such as when he tried to attack Dorothy Kenyon, calling her a major policy-maker in the State Department and a member of 28 communist front groups. As usual, McCarthy was loose with the facts. It turned out Kenyon was not a major player in the department, but had been a delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. She had not been a member of 28 communist front groups, but had lent her name to some organizations before they were put on a list of communist-leaning groups.

Kenyon also stood up to the senator's bully-boy tactics, to the point that he left the committee hearing before she completed her testimony.

"Whatever personal and professional reputation ... I may have acquired has been seriously jeopardized, if not destroyed, by the widespread dissemination of charges of communist leanings that are utterly false," Kenyon said at the conclusion of the hearing.

It was McCarthy's attack on the Army that led directly to his downfall and eventually a vote to censor him by the U.S. Senate.

The hearings were broadcast nationally in 1954 and brought into the living rooms of America the brutal and bullying tactics of the junior senator from Wisconsin. That, along with his unsupported allegations, showed citizens that McCarthy's charges were more bluster than fact.

And while McCarthy had been cautious in his early forays into branding Communists to avoid making those accusations against people in the Badger State, with the exception of The Capital Times and later the Milwaukee Journal, McCarthy set aside that political strategem in the hearings, where he accused Army Gen. Ralph Zwicker of being "not fit to wear the uniform." Zwicker was a Stoughton native who was a highly respected general in the Army but, following orders of his commander, he refused to answer McCarthy's questions.

That brought an outburst from McCarthy, tinged as usual with unsupported red-baiting. "Any general who says 'I will protect another general who protected Communists' is not fit to wear the uniform," McCarthy charged. That brought immediate negative reaction for McCarthy in his home state, as well as the nation, and was followed on June 9, 1954, by a contentious exchange between McCarthy and Joseph N. Welch, the soft spoken head counsel for the Army.

McCarthy unexpectedly began questioning Welch about Fred Fisher, a young lawyer in Welch's firm who had, McCarthy pointed out, once been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, which some labeled a communist front organization.

The accusations stunned Welch. "Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," Welch said, adding that Fisher was a young lawyer with a brilliant future and McCarthy was off base to attack him.

When McCarthy pressed the issue, Welch again cut him off. "You have done enough," he said to McCarthy. "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

By that point much of the nation's press, and the relatively new medium of television, had begun to criticize McCarthy openly, much to Evjue's delight.

Along with a stinging rebuke on national television from the award-winning CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, McCarthy also came under attack from a more local source, the Stoughton VFW Badger Post 328, the mother post of all VFW chapters in Wisconsin. After McCarthy attacked General Zwicker, the general's hometown VFW and its president, Richard Bakken, launched a full-scale investigation of "Tail-Gunner Joe's" real record in the Marines. It found most of McCarthy's claims about his service record were lies and deceptions, and published a resolution and supporting documentation condemning him.

That came in the spring of 1954, at the same time a very courageous newspaper editor in Sauk City launched a "Joe Must Go" recall campaign of McCarthy. Leroy Gore, the small-town editor, said the sole issue of the campaign would be McCarthy and his fitness to serve "his nation, his party and the sovereign State of Wisconsin." Gore slammed McCarthy for "slandering" the Army, "sabotaging" the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and failing to come to the aid of Wisconsin dairy farmers who were facing severe economic trouble.

Gore spoke at Madison's Turner Hall shortly after starting the recall effort. "I am prepared to tell you with all sincerity, that this movement has a real chance of success," he said. "We can, I am sure, secure the necessary 404,200 signatures. We can, I am sure, jump the constitutional barriers. We can, I am sure, return Sen. McCarthy to private life," Gore told the cheering crowd.

But the burden of gathering that many signatures from registered voters in a short period of time was too much, and Gore and his crusade failed.

In December of 1954 the full U.S. Senate voted to censure McCarthy, but it did not remove him from office, as some of the senator's strongest critics had hoped for. McCarthy remained in office until his death on May 2, 1957, but his power was diminished greatly after his censure.

Evjue, meanwhile, always felt cheated by McCarthy's death. McCarthy, had he not died, would have been up for re-election in 1958 and Evjue was certain the rejuvenated Democratic Party would have run a worthy opponent, and defeated McCarthy.

Both in his book and in conversations with others, Evjue always said he was certain McCarthy would have gone down to defeat in 1958. "He robbed us of that satisfaction," Evjue often said.

Just as there was great irony in McCarthy's defeat of young Bob La Follette in 1946, there was irony in the special election to name a successor after his death. At that special election in August of 1958 Democrat William Proxmire, a former Capital Times reporter who left journalism for politics, pulled of a stunning upset over three-term former Gov. Walter J. Kohler. Proxmire held the seat once occupied by McCarthy for 32 years before retiring.

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William T. Evjue founded The Capital Times in 1917, as the drumbeats grew louder for the U.S. to enter the War to End All Wars