Fifty-four years ago today, Joe McCarthy fell from power

It was on June 9, 1954, that U.S. Army attorney Joseph Welch chastised Wisconsin’s most infamous senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. It was during the so-called Army-McCarthy Hearings that were held by the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations that McCarthy, evidently intoxicated and looking quite disheveled, chose to violate an agreement he had made with Mr. Welch prior to the public hearing, provoking Mr. Welch’s now-legendary derision of McCarthy. The Museum Broadcast Communications summarizes it well:

The afternoon of 9 June 1954 brought the emotional climax of the hearings, an exchange replayed in myriad Cold War documentaries. Ignoring a pre-hearing agreement between Welch and Cohn, McCarthy insinuated that one Fred Fischer, a young lawyer at Hale & Dorr, harbored communist sympathies. Welch responded with a righteous outburst that hit all the hot buttons: “Until this moment, senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness….Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” When McCarthy tried to strike back, Welch cut him off and demanded the chairman “call the next witness.” Pausing just a beat, the hushed gallery erupted in applause. The uncomprehending McCarthy, shot dead on live TV, turned to Cohn and stammered, “What happened?”

What happened was that television, whose coverage of McCarthy’s news conferences and addresses to the nation had earlier lent him legitimacy and power, had now precipitated his downfall. Prolonged exposure to McCarthy’s odious character and ill-mannered interruptions was a textbook demonstration of how a hot personality wilted under the glare of a cool medium. Toward the close of the hearings, Senator Stuart Symington (Democrat, Missouri) underscored the lesson in media politics during a sharp exchange with McCarthy: “The American people have had a look at you for six weeks. You are not fooling anyone.”

McCarthy was later censured by the United States Senate, his political career effectively over. He would die just two years later, on May 2, 1957 (aged 48).

Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.