The gentleman from Wisconsin engendered at least as much discourse in death as in life
Everyone who ran into Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) that spring of 1957 had a vivid memory of how ill he wasâjaundiced skin, unsteady balance, intermittent focus. It was a stunning contrast to the town bully who, a mere seven years before, had captivated the nation with his unsubstantiated charge that there were pinkos lurking behind every pillar at an out-of-touch State Departmentâand who, on the eve of his 1954 showdown with the U.S. Army, had the backing of a full 50 percent of his countrymen and the swagger that went with it.
âMy last view of him was that of a drunk shuffling down a street near the Capitol,â said Irish-American historian George Reedy. âHe was closing out the dark side of the victims of the Famine.â Speechwriter Ed Nellor paid the senator a long visit and remembered him as âdazedâ and âpunch-drunk.â At 1 the next morning McCarthy phoned Nellor at home, rousing his ex-aide from bed to ask when he might be dropping by. He had forgotten! At a meeting of the Wauwatosa School Board, a librarian from McCar-thyâs home-state Milwaukee Journal observed Joe in need of rescue from the boardâs cloakroom, where heâd become hopelessly entangled in coats and hardly was able to speak. When editors at the Journal heard about that, they assigned reporter Edwin Bayley full-time to writing the obituary of the pugnacious ex-Marine the world had come to know as Tailgunner Joe.
In his better moments, the senator, a faithful Catholic, seemed to be saying his goodbyes and asking for a kind of redemption. Two-and-a-half years earlier, his Senate colleagues had taken the rare step of condemning him for his incivility, although not for the Red-baiting, accusation by association, fear-mongering, and political double-dealing that had turned the name McCarthy into an ism. âI picked up the telephone and it was Joe. It was the first time we had spoken to each other in exactly seven years,â recalled syndicated columnist and McCarthy nemesis Drew Pearson. âThe following conversation took place: âDrew, are you sitting down?â âYes,â I replied. âWell, I wanted to make sure you werenât standing up or youâd faint. I just wanted to tell you that Iâm putting your column today in the Congressional Record. As you know, I donât always agree with what you say but this column I know tells the truthâ…We exchanged a few pleasantries and I thanked him. That was the end of the conversation…I couldnât help but feel sorry for him. He was a very lonesome guy.â
Another bitter adversary, former Army lawyer John Adams, had a similar experience. Adamsâs faceoffs with the second-term senator had been a centerpiece of the famous April 22-June 17, 1954, U.S. Senate hearings into McCarthyâs charges that communists had infiltrated the U.S. Army. âI was sitting in my small law office near the District of Columbia courthouse,â Adams said. âHe wanted me to come to see him at his homeâ¦I decided to goâ¦He poured about six ounces of Fleischmannâs gin into a glass, added a little tonic and a lump of ice, and lumbered back into the living room. He looked awful. He had lost about 40 pounds, and his hands shookâ¦McCarthy said that he had admired my integrity during the Army-McCarthy hearingsâ¦He then suggested that I now show my integrity by repudiating the Army position. He wanted me to join with him in some sort of statement which, he believed, would help him reestablish himself. He did not explain how if one show of âintegrityâ repudiated another show of âintegrity,â either could be believedâ¦âItâs no good, Joe,â I said. âIt wonât work. Itâs over and finished; thatâs all. You canât change the truthââ¦After about an hour, I got up to leave. McCarthy walked with me to the door and stood there until I reached the sidewalk. I said, âSo long, Joeâ to the cadaverous visage of McCarthyism, standing silently in the shadows, slowly dying.â McCarthyâs visit with Adams, his call to Pearson, and other belated bids for forgiveness all were on his terms. There is no evidence that he was thinking about the damage heâd wrought with his Red-baiting of the State Department and Army. And he was too busy feeling sorry for himself to have second thoughts about his victims, or even to acknowledge that his crusade against communism had generated casualties.
On April 28, 1957, Joe McCarthy checked into Bethesda Naval Hospital for the last time, for what was said to be treatment of an old knee injury. His 12th-floor room was under guard, with wife Jean the only visitor allowed, and much more than a knee was ailing him, as is evident in hospital records made available to this author. Since a previous admission in January, McCarthyâs alcohol consumption had skyrocketed from â1/5 a day of whiskeyâ to â4/5âs a day.â His food intake had plummeted from â3 well rounded meals a dayâ to just beef broth. In late February âhe began to have severe AM nausea & vomitingâ along with âwatery diarrhea,â his doctor wrote, and âthis past 2 weeks he has been maintained on daily IV feedingsâ1500-2000 cc/dayâDextrose & H2O.â McCarthyâs liver was enlarged, he was jaundiced, his temperature was spiking, and heâd been sedated even before arriving at the hospital.
Once their patient was admitted, doctors were by his bedside regularly and nurses were present non-stop, on âspecial watch,â taking notes on every occurrence in a way that made clear Navy brass knew not just how sick the senator was but how controversial. âPatient was looking up at me and all of a sudden threw up his hands. I took them in mine, and I noticed his eyes rolled back and his face and shoulders were getting very flush. He started to gag and I then noticed patient going into what seemed like a Grand [Mal] Seizure,â a nurse wrote the morning of April 29. âAt first very hard jerks all over and then completely all over came to a calm, complete calm. I [immediately] got on the bed and began artificial respiration, patient started to breathe again.â Four hours later McCarthy had another seizure and âthere was difficulty in getting tongue blade in mouth.â
That evening, after further convulsions, Joe âbit his tongue. He then began body tremors involving his arms, head, & the muscles of his chest, & abdomen & his legs.â He was hallucinating, soiling his bedclothes, venting a pneumonia-like rattle from his chest, and excreting blood-red urine.
Nurses tried to decipher his muttering. âI want to go homeâ¦ [I] havenât had a drink in two or three weeksâ¦only a few beers.â
Later, he seemed to be making a âspeechâ where he âkeeps addressing âMr. President.ââ He talked about âgoing to work, his duties to investigate.â What caregivers could make out most clearly was when he âstated he had a new baby and it was his life.â
The watch continued as Joe restlessly picked at his oxygen tent, then clapped his hands and began laughing. He waved his arms overhead âas if to ward off attackers, mumbling incoherently, âGet away, get away.ââ On day five, he âseemed very hot to the touch.â His temperature registered 106 degrees, then an even more alarming 110. âPacked in ice chips,â his nurse recorded at 4 p.m. âNasal oxygen started. Color ashen.â A Catholic priest delivered last rites. At 5:45 p.m., three doctors worked in tandem to administer artificial respiration. The nurseâs last entry was at 6:02 p.m. that Thursday, May 2, 1957: âRespiration ceased. Pronounced by Dr. Kenny.â
Nobody close to him was surprised by Joe McCarthyâs death. Members of his inner circle had known long before his final visit to Bethesda Naval that his fall from political grace had shattered his heart and that liquor was eating at his liver. Joeâs refusal to eatâor to stop drinkingâsuggested heâd lost the will to live. What is less clear is what actually killed him that perfect spring day in May. His doctors and his death certificate gave the reason as acute hepatitis, âcause unknown.â FBI files show reports of everything from bone cancer to a slow poisoning by radiated water, or arsenic, or carbon tetrachloride. Some said the Soviets did him in; others blamed the CIA. The senatorâs widow was reported to be telling relatives she suspected foul doings. âThe day that [Joe] died, [Jean] went to the hospital to pick him up, because he was feeling good, he was coming home,â Mary Reardon, Joeâs cousin, said Jean McCarthy confided to her mother. âHe had his things packed and was ready to go home. And she went to the bathroom and to finish up some things at the desk, and when she came back, there were three men leaving his room. And when she got there he was dead.â
While such theories of intrigue befit the author of Americaâs grandest conspiracies, they simply arenât true. Nurses, corpsmen, or physicians were by the senatorâs side continuously, making it nigh impossible for an enemy to do him harm. He didnât have cancer, and nothing indicates he was poisoned with arsenic or anything else. Yet McCarthyâs hospital records do make clear one thing: he didnât die from hepatitis. Tests showed only modest elevations of the compound bilirubin in his blood and of the time his blood took to clot, two indications of mild liver disease, and thereâs little reason to believe that Joeâs mild-to-moderate form of that ailment killed him. The immediate cause of Joeâs death, say four of Americaâs most distinguished doctors who recently reviewed McCarthyâs files, almost certainly was the fever that spiked to deadly levels. That fever probably was triggered by severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, with seizures and delirium tremens, or DTs, which in that era killed a third of alcoholic patients. An infectionâin McCarthyâs urinary tract, around a catheter in his bladder, or in his lungsâcould have aggravated his DTs and contributed to that sky-high body temperature. So could Joeâs diseased liver, or even the newfangled anti-psychotic medications he was prescribed to control his agitation; such sedatives can interfere with temperature regulation and in rare cases lead to a fatal condition called neuroleptic malignant syndrome.
How could Joseph McCarthyâs team of esteemed Navy doctors seemingly get this final judgment on the senator from Wisconsin so wrong? If McCarthyâs demise had grown out of his DTs, as his hospital records suggest, the medical world had failed to appreciate the risk that condition posed or to treat his particular case as effectively as can be done today, when the mortality rate for DTs is under 5 percent. If neuroleptic syndrome did play a role, McCarthyâs physicians wouldnât have known it; the first such episodes were only then being described, and in France. The syndrome was not widely recognized until the 1970s. If the senator had contracted pneumonia or some other deadly infection at Bethesda Naval Hospital, that facilityâs staff lacked access to current-day drugs and technology that might have saved him. Most likely hepatitis was the acceptable âvanillaâ verdict for a man whose liver was diseased. The gesture of invoking hepatitisâespecially with the scary modifier âacute,â and absent the more accurate labels of alcoholic hepatitis or alcoholic cirrhosisâspared the McCarthy family the pain of publicly acknowledging Joeâs chronic and perhaps suicidal drunkenness. A concerted cover-up seems improbable, since the Bethesda Naval medical team requested an autopsy, which Jean McCarthy vetoed.
Tributes to the senator poured in from both sides of the McCarthy divide. President Dwight Eisenhower extended âprofound sympathiesâ to Jean over the loss of the senator whoâd branded him an appeaser. William Loeb, publisher of New Hampshireâs right-wing Manchester Union-Leader, insisted Eisenhower was one of Joeâs murderers, along with the communists. âNo comment at all,â Dean Acheson, the former secretary of state who McCarthy had branded âRedâ Dean, said. âDe mortuis nil nisi bonum.â (In English, that Roman aphorism reads, âOf the dead, say nothing but good.â) Annie Lee Moss, a communications clerk targeted by McCarthy in his probe of the Army, said she was sorry to hear of her inquisitorâs death. âBut thatâs something we have all got to do sooner or later,â Moss added. The New York Times led with an obituary, along with two full pages of retrospectives, but no editorial. âWhy dignify the bastard?â editor Charles Merz explained later. âLet him pass from the scene without more attention.â
Neither the Roman Catholic church nor the U.S. Senate appeared to have any such qualms. On Monday, May 6, a pontifical high requiem mass took place a few blocks from the White House at St. Matthewâs Cathedral, where four years earlier Jean and Joe had wed. As 2,000 mourners listened, Monsignor John J. Cartwright said McCarthyâs role in raising an alarm about communism âwill be more and more honored as history unfolds its record.â Later that day, Joe was memorialized in the chamber of the Senate that he had joined at 38 and where, in 1954, colleagues had voted overwhelmingly to denounce him. The last Senate funeral had been William Borahâs in 1940, although leaders were quick to point out they would have done the same for any member whose family asked, as Jean had. âThis fallen warrior through death speaketh,â said Chaplain Frederick Brown Harris, âcalling a nation of free men to be delivered from the complacency of a false security and from regarding those who loudly sound the trumpets of vigilance and alarm as mere disturbers of the peace.â Seventy senators were on hand, along with Jean Kerr McCarthy, three of Joeâs siblings, Vice President Richard Nixon, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover, and McCarthy protÃ©gÃ© Roy Cohn.
The next day Joeâs body, accompanied by three of his closest Senate pals, was flown by military plane to Green Bay, Wisconsin, then driven 32 miles to Appleton. Disciples came in flocks that sun-baked Tuesday, packing the pews at St. Maryâs and spilling onto the streets outside the Irish-American parish where Joseph Raymond McCarthy had been baptized and, six months shy of 49, was being eulogized. âSenator McCarthy was a dedicated man, not a fanatic,â Father Adam Grill said. âThe guidance of our beloved land is under the guidance of human beings and as human being[s] we are all fallible.â Flags across Appleton were at half-staff, as they had been at the White House and other public buildings in Washington, and in Appleton schools and shops were shuttered at midday. This was the last of three memorials and the first in the state that had easily and repeatedly elected McCarthy to state and national office; 25,000 friends and fans from Green Bay, Neenah, and McCarthyâs native Grand Chute had paid their respects at his open casket. Others were keeping vigil outside the church alongside honor guards of military police, Boy Scouts, and Knights of Columbus members. On hand were 19 senators, seven congressmen, and a handful of other luminaries, most of whom had supported Joe in his relentless assault on communism.
Joe McCarthy was buried in St. Maryâs cemetery, at his favorite spot on a tree-lined bluff overlooking the Fox River. As a rifle squad of U.S. Marines and Catholic War Veterans members fired triple volleys, Jean stood at attention. The casket was lowered into the ground between the graves of Joeâs parents, Timothy and Bridget, where a simple stone would read: Joseph R. McCarthy, United States Senator, Nov. 14, 1908âMay 2, 1957.
Newspapers around the world ran obituaries, and commentators weighed in from the right and the left. The one who came closest to capturing the enigmaâand the tragedyâof the Wisconsin senator may have been Eric Sevareid of CBS, one of the crusading wartime correspondents dubbed Murrowâs Boys. McCarthy âwas a sudden rocket in the sky, enrapturing some, frightening others, catching millions in a kind of spell that dissipated only when the rocket itself, as a rocket must, spluttered, went cold, and fellâ¦â Sevareid said. âIf history finds that McCarthy used his strength in a wrongful manner, it will find that the weakness of others was part of the fault.â
Excerpted from Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy copyright Â© 2020 by Larry Tye. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
This story appeared in the August 2020 issue of American History.