History and Historiography

The Gay McCarthyites

Gay/Lesbian Review

ONE OF THE LOW POINTS in American history was in the early 1950’s when Senator Joseph McCarthy successfully fueled and exploited Americans’ fear and paranoia about secret governmental conspiracies, launching witch hunts to expose allegedly subversive infiltrators and Communists within the U.S. government. A lesser known part of the story is the critical role that a same-sex male relationship, almost certainly a sexual one, played in bringing the crisis of McCarthyism to a head and, in the end, silencing the senator. As it happens, the gay couple involved cannot exactly be considered the “good guys” in the drama.

Early in 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy entered history as an “accidental demagogue” when, during a speech to a small town Republican women’s club, he waved a scrap of paper toward the audience and exclaimed that it was a list of 205 known members of the Communist Party working within the State Department. Such accusations garnered national attention, which fed McCarthy’s egomaniacal hunger for fame and notoriety, leading to a carnival-like show of accusations and threats that lasted for nearly four years. That scrap of paper, by the way, was apparently his laundry receipt.

McCarthy’s rise to prominence was due partly to his sense of self-righteousness and partly to his superb performance in this self-appointed role. It always looked as though he needed a shave; he bored his listeners with a tuneless whine and smirked like a schoolyard bully after making a point; but somehow it worked. In addition, McCarthy understood how the news was made and became an expert at manipulating reporters by providing just the story they needed right before their deadlines (Fulford, 1995).

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