The Blog


Bill Buckley on Tailgunner Joe

12:00 AM, Jul 5, 1999 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Only a wordsmith of William F. Buckley's caliber could try, and largely succeed, in depicting Joe McCarthy as an engaging, sympathetic, and ultimately tragic figure. Buckley's McCarthy is a rogue -- but not a loathsome enemy of freedom so detestable that the very word "McCarthyism" is a name accepted even by conservative politicians for unjust, unfounded accusations.

Make no mistake. Buckley's new book is not a comprehensive analysis of Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy. The Redhunter is truly a novel, the thirteenth by the doyen of conservative pundits who has honed his craft well in chronicling the fictional adventures of his CIA operative, Blackford Oakes. Even liberals who grow faint at the thought of any kind word about McCarthy will enjoy the pacing and suspense of an engrossing story with many twists and turns.

Act One of Buckley's drama portrays how young Joe, manifesting grit and a cavalier disregard for the truth, started as a fifteen-year-old high school dropout and failed chicken farmer and ended as the youngest member of the U.S. Senate, elected in 1946 at thirty-eight.

In Act Two, McCarthy stumbles into his role as America's most famous Communist-hunter and inspiration to millions of his countrymen. No, he did not catch any real spies, but neither did he ruin the lives of innocent Americans. Buckley forthrightly describes the essence of "McCarthyism" when he deals with State Department adviser Owen Lattimore, immortalized as one of the senator's "victims." McCarthy accurately identified Lattimore as one of the influential insiders whose pro-Communist views adversely influenced U.S. Cold War strategy; McCarthy went overboard only by designating Lattimore as the top Soviet agent in America.

Act Three opens with the appearance of Roy Cohn as the McCarthy committee's chief counsel. Hired at the suggestion of Hearst columnist George Sokolsky to assuage unfounded charges of anti-Semitism by the senator, Cohn -- at least in Buckley's presentation -- is a mean-spirited fool who propels McCarthy into a fatal confrontation with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Joe's doom comes when the president, in the novel, declares, "This is it. The end of Ike's sweet temper. Son of a bitch." Condemned by the Senate and ruined politically, a brokenhearted, hopelessly alcoholic McCarthy dies at age forty-eight.

Eisenhower is part of a procession of real people with cameo roles: Harry Truman, Henry Wallace, Dean Acheson, J. Edgar Hoover, and Richard Nixon, to name only a few. But as in the historical novels of Buckley's bete noire, Gore Vidal, the real characters appear on the page primarily to interact with the fictional characters.

The Redhunter's fictional protagonist is idealistic young McCarthy aide Harry Bontecou (an unusual name that I previously had seen only in a footnote in Buckley's 1954 defense of the senator, McCarthy and His Enemies, citing a book by one Eleanor Bontecou). Harry seems to be roughly modeled on Buckley in both friendship with and criticism of McCarthy, though Buckley never actually worked for McCarthy and, as far as I know, did not experience Bontecou's romantic difficulties. Bontecou's conservative mentor, Willmoore Sherrill of Columbia University, can only be Buckley's conservative mentor, the late Willmoore Kendall of Yale.

In his own historical novel Freedom, William Safire provided a list of which events he had borrowed from history and which events he had made up. Buckley only asserts that "most events here recorded are true to life." But that does not mean they should be taken literally.

Some accounts in the book which seem most fictional are in fact taken from life -- as when freelance writer Forest Davis encounters McCarthy at a Washington party and, impelled by too much liquor, hands over to the senator a 169-page critical manuscript about General George C. Marshall's foreign policy blunders. A grateful McCarthy puts the entire manuscript, verbatim but unattributed, in the Senate record, then typically adds a characteristically, unsubstantiated accusation that the general is part of "a conspiracy of infamy."

But many incidents in the novel are invented. Buckley tells a gripping story of how McCarthy's staff in 1950 leaked information to Meet the Press moderator Lawrence Spivak in preparation for Owen Lattimore's appearance on the Sunday evening television program. Truman, Acheson, and McCarthy are all described eagerly awaiting the broadcast. Spivak destroys Lattimore with evidence of his denied State Department roles and connection with Soviet spy Lauchlin Currie. "God almighty," says Acheson, as he watches the program. But in truth, Lattimore never appeared on Meet the Press. His embarrassment came later, before a Senate committee.