"Today [Joseph McCarthy] exists in most people's imagination almost solely as an established icon of evil," writes biographer Arthur Herman. His very name has become an epithet: McCarthyism. Yet Herman believes it's time to reexamine the legacy, and in a brave, eponymously titled biography, he argues persuasively that "McCarthy was making a good point badly." Communism represented "a massive and intractable security problem" for the United States during the 1940s and 1950s; furthermore, "Democratic administrations had been unconscionably lax in dealing with an internal Communist threat." Herman doesn't mean to excuse McCarthy's recklessness--only to offer a balanced portrait of the man and his times. Joseph McCarthy
simply couldn't have been written before the late 1990s--partly because the subject still stirs fiery passions, but also because Herman makes use of archival material that only became available after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His reassessment will no doubt be met with scorn by many leftists: "McCarthy was always a more important figure to American liberals than to conservatives. The nightmarish image of his heavy, swarthy, sweaty features haunted the imaginations of thousands of anti-anti-Communists throughout the fifties and sixties." Herman usefully points out that McCarthy actually had nothing to do with many aspects of the anti-Communist activities commonly grouped together under the label of McCarthyism, including the House Un-American Activities Committee, probes into Hollywood politics, and university blacklisting. (He also humanizes his subject: Did you know McCarthy was "a minor figure in the Kennedy circle," even dating two of the Kennedy daughters and becoming godfather to Bobby and Ethel's first child?) In the end, Herman offers an outstanding, cool-headed, and much-needed reappraisal of a poorly understood man. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
Given recent revelations from Soviet-era archives and new thinking about the Cold War, this biography was probably inevitable. Readers can therefore be thankful that Herman, a historian at George Mason University, has given us an occasionally strained but generally fair study of McCarthy rather than a one-sided defense or assault on him. The book will surely be controversial and subject to attack from all sides, for its author insists that we must hold McCarthy's enemies and victims to the same standards to which we hold him. McCarthy himself was as much a phenomenon as McCarthyism. He rocketed from local Wisconsin office directly into the Senate, where he was quickly marginalized by the defenders of that institution's decorum, which he then scorned and attacked. Depicted by Herman as a reckless, uninformed, publicity-seeking, hard-drinking, mocking man, McCarthy doesn't easily evoke sympathy. But Herman successfully situates the anticommunist zealot in his place and time and among his opponents and supporters better than anyone before him and (by conjecturing cautiously, for example, that he suffered from hypomania) helps us understand, if not honor, his methods and their consequences. In arguing that McCarthy was "always a more important figure to American liberals than to conservatives," Herman opens new avenues for understanding American liberalism, as well as McCarthy's own Republican Party, in the 20th century. Unfortunately, he fails to provide a full picture of the manAhusband (of Jean Kerr, critically important to McCarthy's career), father, sometime bon vivant. Nevertheless, Herman's book is an important contribution. (Dec.)
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