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Sen. Joseph McCarthy covers the microphones with his hands while having a whispered discussion with his chief counsel Roy Cohn during a committee hearing on April 26, 1954, in Washington. The entire event of the Senate subcommittee hearings on the Army-McCarthy charges was broadcast live on network TV and radio. McCarthy is the focus of PBS documentary airing Jan. 6.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy covers the microphones with his hands while having a whispered discussion with his chief counsel Roy Cohn during a committee hearing on April 26, 1954, in Washington. The entire event of the Senate subcommittee hearings on the Army-McCarthy charges was broadcast live on network TV and radio. McCarthy is the focus of PBS documentary airing Jan. 6. (AP)

The word “unprecedented” is often used when discussing the nastier political tactics of President Donald Trump. And in many cases, that’s a perfectly apt word.

But if you think there has never been anyone as reckless, transgressive, lowdown and cruel as Trump in modern American politics, you need to see “McCarthy," an outstanding, two-hour, prime-time PBS documentary on Joseph McCarthy, the infamous Republican senator from Wisconsin, airing Monday at 9 p.m. on PBS as part of public television’s venerable “American Experience” franchise.

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Based in part on a deeply-researched and richly-textured 1983 biography, “A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy,” by historian David M. Oshinsky," and focusing on the years 1950 to ’54 in McCarthy’s Senate career, this is not a documentary that overtly has anything at all to do with Trump. But debuting in today’s Trump-saturated America, the parallels are impossible to ignore. So too, is the physical link of Roy Cohn moving from McCarthy’s chief counsel during his infamous Senate hearings to personal attorney and mentor to Trump in later years.

Start with all the talk from Trump and some of his allies about conspiracies, with one of the latest being the incredible claim that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that meddled in our 2016 presidential election.

Unprecedented? For a president of the United States, yes.

But been there, done that for McCarthy almost 70 years ago in language even bigger and more over-the-top than Trump’s, as indicated by the title of Oshinsky’s book, “A Conspiracy So Immense.” The phrase comes from a 1951 McCarthy speech in the Senate in which he says: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men."

The junior senator from Wisconsin was explaining the Communist takeover of China and expansion throughout parts of Eastern Europe as the result of what he alleged was a conspiracy that extended deep into the American government. And who were those Americans who “shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men?"

Dean Acheson, then secretary of state, was one. Army Gen. George Marshall, chief of staff to two Democratic presidents, and Secretary of Defense in 1951, was another. The Marshall Plan, which provided U.S. aid to a devastated Europe after World War II, was named after him.

McCarthy stopped short of calling Democratic President Harry Truman a conspirator working with the Communists to undermine America. The president was merely a dupe looking the other way and going along with all the deep-state perfidy, in McCarthy’s fevered analysis.

If you think “fevered” is too strong or loaded a word, wait until you see McCarthy in the documentary when he is in high dudgeon talking about Communists as skunks and rats.

And how about those faked images and words that President Trump champions in social media like the wrestling meme he re-tweeted that shows him body slamming someone with a CNN logo for a face?

Using the technology of their day, McCarthy’s team used the same kind of manipulated images to attack opponents.

McCarthy was not up for re-election in 1950, but Maryland senator Millard Tydings was. Like Trump, McCarthy held grudges big time and tried to personally destroy those he held them against. One of the people against whom he held a major grudge, according to Oshinsky’s book, was Tydings for the role the Democrat played on a Senate subcommittee that investigated McCarthy’s tactics.

McCarthy campaigned against Tydings in Maryland in 1950 accusing the Maryland senator of “protecting Communists for political reasons.” On the eve of the election, McCarthy’s staff circulated a composite photo intended to make it look as if Tydings and Earl Browder, one-time chair of the Communist Party USA, were in a “friendly conversation.”

Tydings lost the election, and McCarthy was seen as playing a significant role in that, a perception that only enhanced his power.

Oshinsky, a professor of history at NYU, is featured prominently in the documentary, along with a half dozen other historians with similar levels of political and cultural knowledge.

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Among those caught up in McCarthy’s accusations was Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins University professor and State Department adviser on China who was among nine people accused by McCarthy of being a Soviet spy.

McCarthy is shown on film describing Lattimore as “the architect of our Far Eastern policy, a policy that has so far sold into Communist slavery 400 million people.” Donald A. Ritchie, historian emeritus of the U.S. Senate, tempers that claim by describing Lattimore as a left-leaning China specialist who, "wanted the United States essentially to support the Communist takeover and recognize China.”

Lattimore, who was in Afghanistan at the time of the attack against him, called the charges pure moonshine and McCarthy a “madman” for lobbing them.

“Is Lattimore arrogant? Yes," author Oshinsky says. “Is Lattimore a traitor? Absurd. Is McCarthy getting traction for all of that? Unbelievably."

From the image of Oshinsky talking about McCarthy getting traction, the screen fills with a 1950 newsreel showing McCarthy sitting at a desk piled high with envelopes. He’s going through the mail that has him “snowed under" with comments on Lattimore, according to the announcer, who says the situation is building to a showdown when Lattimore returns from Afghanistan to face a Senate hearing.

Lattimore’s arrival back in this country is recounted for the documentary by his son, David Lattimore, against a rich tapestry of newsreel footage and evocative still photographs of the massively covered event.

“My mother and I went to what is now JFK [airport]," David Lattimore says. “And it was a strange, underground, almost sort of Dante-esque setting with a long corridor that he was going to have to come down running the gauntlet of, who knows, a hundred reporters and photographers with their big ... cameras and flashbulbs."

A montage of still photographs humanizes the family and speaks volumes about what it felt like to be on the wrong end of McCarthy’s reckless cruelty.

“McCarthy became a demagogue by preying on people’s fears and turning Americans against each other,” writer and director Sharon Grimberg says in PBS press materials. “It’s a story about the fragility of democracy and how someone in power can pervert democracy. And it’s about being willing to challenge a bully and stand up for our sense of decency as Americans.”

“McCarthy” is an effort PBS can be proud of. It meets the highest hopes that the most enlightened founders of public broadcasting had for the medium: to provide context to events based on facts and verified images. It is exactly the kind of historical production that can help keep us as a nation from repeating mistakes.

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