Taking on a political bully isn’t easy, especially when much of America still embraces him. But in the 1950s, four U.S. senators from Connecticut — Democrats William Benton and Brien McMahon and Republicans Prescott Bush and Raymond Baldwin — did just that with this nation’s archetypal demagogue, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy.
Just how brave they were — and how rare it was to have four senators from a single state stand up like that — wasn’t apparent in real time. It is now, thanks to records released to this author of McCarthy’s unscripted writings and correspondence, military records and wartime medical charts, love letters, financial files, academic transcripts, and box after box of other personal and professional documents that were under lock-and-key for 60 years.
On Feb. 9, 1950, McCarthy launched his crusade against communism with a bare-knuckled Lincoln Day Dinner speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he charged that the U.S. State Department was riddled with Reds. Eleven days later the Wisconsin Republican was defending his indefensible allegations on the floor of the Senate, where McMahon challenged him 34 times. McMahon and other outraged Democrats hadn’t yet learned yet the futility of taking on an opponent with McCarthy’s blend of wit, whimsy and mendacity. McCarthy had learned early that there was no worse a penalty for a big lie than for a little one, but that only the big ones drew a crowd, so he told whoppers. Nor did his rivals appreciate that, backed into a corner, McCarthy could transform himself into either a pit bull or a lamb, whichever would get him out of his particular jam. In the Senate chamber that night he claimed the high ground and painted McMahon and the rest as ignoble partisans. “All I am doing,” McCarthy pleaded, “is presenting enough of the picture so that I hope both the Democratic side and the Republican side will forget politics and help clean house. I think this is something in which we cannot think of politics as usual.”
Next it was Benton’s turn. “There is one act of hypocrisy which most offends the deepest convictions of the Christian conscience and also the American spirit of justice and fair play. That act is to put the brand of guilt on an innocent man,” Benton told his colleagues in the fall of 1951, just a year before voters would render their verdict on whether to re-elect McCarthy. “I submit that there is no one who has erred more recklessly and maliciously in this respect than Senator Joseph McCarthy. Let us now remember the words of Isaiah: ‘Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil.’ ”
McCarthy turned to the Book of Exodus for his eye-for-an-eye-style riposte. Even as it was probing McCarthy at the instigation of Benton, McCarthy pushed the Senate to simultaneously probe Benton for what McCarthy said were his Communist sympathies and financial improprieties. And in a TV interview, the ex-pugilist tried to cut his new rival down to size by dubbing him “Little Willie Benton, Connecticut’s mental midget.” Few were distracted, as it was apparent that it was McCarthy, not Benton, who was on trial.
Benton, meanwhile, was convinced that his phones were tapped, his tax records had been leaked to McCarthy, and his personal safety was imperiled enough that he ordered his chauffeur, an ex-prizefighter, to ensure nobody was following him. It wasn’t pure paranoia. The newly available archives make clear that McCarthy investigators were poring over every bill the Connecticut lawmaker had ever filed and speech he’d made, along with unsupported gossip about his sexual preferences surfaced by the Loyal American Underground. Broadcasters George Sokolsky and Fulton Lewis, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, were scouring their files, too. It was war, and McCarthy, a don’t-give-an-inch leatherneck who’d fought in the South Pacific, was now enlisting every available ally and weapon. Unable to disprove the message, McCarthy went after the messenger.
During their back-and-forth, Benton borrowed a page from the McCarthy playbook to tease him. He offered to waive his senatorial immunity and dared McCarthy to sue over any of the accusations made during Benton’s 30,000 words of anti-McCarthy testimony. Having painted himself into a corner, McCarthy filed a $2 million libel suit against his Connecticut colleague, the first time anyone could remember one senator suing another and one more in McCarthy’s string of legal battles. “I consider this lawsuit as a means of pinpointing the contest between America and the Communist Party,” he wrote his adversary.
When he eventually dropped the claim, McCarthy said it was because his lawyer had been unable to discover a single person in the whole U.S. who believed Benton’s charges. Benton and his backers again called McCarthy’s bluff, running newspaper ads under the banner “We Believe Benton,” and generating 1,400 signed responses of people willing to testify. McCarthy’s closest friend, judge and one-time McCarthy campaign manager Urban Van Susteren, said the lawsuit never was aimed at a payout, just a payback. Every morning when Benton was shaving, McCarthy hoped, the Nutmegger would look in the mirror and imagine having to fork over $2 million to the man he hated most. And that would make him sweat.
In the end it was Benton and not McCarthy who voters ousted in 1952. The election board at the Hotel Appleton in Wisconsin, where the McCarthy team was celebrating, carried this pronouncement: “Benton went to hell at 8:30.” And the next morning, the Appleton newspaper said the phrase heard most often among McCarthy partisans was “Joe won in Connecticut.” Little Willie Benton got his revenge two years later when his dusted-off resolution provided the foundation for McCarthy’s condemnation by the Senate.
Hardball McCarthy tactics like those alarmed at least one candidate McCarthy tried to help that election year. Prescott Bush, a buttoned-down Republican running for a Senate opening in Connecticut created with the death of one of McCarthy’s earliest foes, Democrat Brien McMahon, appeared with McCarthy at a rally in Bridgeport. “I never saw such a wild bunch of monkeys in any meeting that I’ve ever attended,” Bush said looking back. At the time, he told the standing-room crowd, “I must in all candor say that some of us, while we admire his objectives in his fight against Communism, we have very considerable reservations sometimes concerning the methods which he employs.” That was too much for McCarthy’s fans: “The roof went off with boos and hisses and catcalls and ‘Throw him out.’ ” McCarthy, however, crossed the stage to shake hands with Bush, who won that race and launched a dynasty that would see his son and grandson make it to the White House. Over dinner that night McCarthy was even more amiable, signing autographs for fellow diners and leaning over to tell the Wall Street-banker-turned-politician, “Now, Pres, what can I do for you? I want you to win this election … Do you need any money?”
McMahon, Bush and Benton all might have learned something about the risks of tangling with McCarthy from Baldwin, who’d done just that back in the late 1940s. Baldwin chaired a special investigatory subcommittee investigating the Army’s handling of the Nazi perpetrators of the bloodiest slaughter of American soldiers during World War II near the medieval city of Malmedy, Belgium. McCarthy, who’d accused the Army of botching the investigation and imposing victor’s justice, was allowed to sit in as an observer, a role that he would exploit and that the panel would rue.
In classic form, when his arguments didn’t prevail, McCarthy stormed out of the proceedings. “I feel that the investigation has degenerated to such a shameful farce that I can no longer take part therein and I am today requesting the expenditures subcommittee chairman to relieve me of the duty to continue,” he told Baldwin and the others. The truth is that nobody in Congress had ever encouraged him to sit in on the Malmedy proceedings or was fazed when he quit. But the always-eager media did care, and so, even before he addressed his fellow senators, McCarthy was ready with a press release blasting his colleagues. “I accuse the subcommittee of being afraid of the facts,” he said. “I accuse it of attempting to whitewash a shameful episode in the history of our glorious armed forces.”
Baldwin, the former three-term governor of Connecticut, responded with the understatement that was characteristic for him and a contrast to his Badger State colleague: “The chairman regrets that the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Mr. McCarthy, has lost his temper and with it, the sound impartial judgment which should be exercised in this matter.” Baldwin, who would later serve as chief justice of Connecticut’s Supreme Court of Errors (now the state Supreme Court), might also have noted the irony that one of the Senate and the nation’s most outrageous liars would accuse others of covering up the truth.
While McCarthy’s favorite targets in Washington were Democrats, Baldwin learned that Republicans weren’t immune. The Connecticut lawmaker had decided before the Malmedy hearings to resign his Senate seat, but the verbal brutality he suffered at McCarthy’s hands made him happier to go and convinced his biographer that he was “the first victim of ‘McCarthyism.’ ”