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Echo of Present Paranoia in McCarthy Museum
Published on Thursday, January 24, 2002 in the Guardian of London
Echo of Present Paranoia in McCarthy Museum
by Matthew Engel in Washington
 
A nation in panic. The possibility of sudden attack any moment. A vast international conspiracy. Perverted ideals. Insidious and dangerous enemies living the lives of ordinary Americans and just waiting to strike ...

When a small-town museum in the mid-west decided, three years ago, to put on an exhibition about the most resonant figure from one of the most fearful periods in the US, the organizers thought they were just adding to local people's understanding of history.

Joseph McCarthy
U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, right, speaks to his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, during a hearing of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee in Washington in this April 22, 1954 file photo. A two-year exhibit entitled "Joseph McCarthy: A Modern Tragedy'' opens Saturday, Jan. 19, 2002, in Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Byron Rollins, File)
But by the time the exhibition - Joseph McCarthy: A modern tragedy - opened in Appleton, Wisconsin, on Saturday, it had acquired an entirely unexpected and far wider relevance.

"The debate between individual rights and national security has become very similar to the debate in the 1950s," its curator, Kim Louagie, said. "Since September 11 the parallels have become very apparent."

Appleton has two famous sons. One, the escapologist Harry Houdini, escaped. But McCarthy did not go away, and has never gone away. Like Houdini's, his name persists in the language on both sides of the Atlantic ("McCarthyism: "the practice of making unsubstantiated accusations of disloyalty or communist leanings," Collins dictionary).

Unlike that of most historical figures, his global reputation has remained almost unretouched since his death 45 years ago. Even his kindest biographer, the historian Arthur Herman, calls him "the single most despised man in American political memory".

Also See:
The New McCarthyism
Matthew Rothschild/The Progressive January 2002
McCarthy, born just outside Appleton in 1908, was elected to the Senate at the age of 37. He became famous in 1950 when he claimed that communists had "infested" the state department, theatrically waving a piece of paper which he said contained the traitors' names.

For the next four years he denounced alleged communists from Washington to Hollywood, whether he had evidence or not.

But in 1954 his Senate hearings were televised and the public saw his bullying methods for itself.

Other politicians finally found the courage to turn their loathing of him into official censure.

McCarthy was broken, and alcoholism killed him three years later.

But in Wisconsin there is inevitable ambivalence. The state voted for him twice, after all. And the view expressed in Herman's book, that "McCarthy often overreached himself. But McCarthy was often right", never wholly disappeared.

Ms Louagie says the museum is not trying to rehabilitate him, and the two-year exhibition looks very balanced. But she is proud that McCarthy's closest living relative - who has asked not to be identified - has praised it for helping him come across as a human being rather than a demon.

But while visitors muse on the connection between the 1950s and the present crisis, one thing remains different: no new Joe McCarthy is rampaging through US politics.

"Not right now, there isn't," Ms Louagie says, portentously.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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