If Wheeling, West Virginia, was where Sen. Joe McCarthy made himself the most divisive man in 1950s America, Baltimore was where he became the most feared and the role model for our 45th president.
McCarthy, like President Donald Trump, couldn’t forget a slight. And none of his congressional colleagues had maligned him more than Millard Tydings, who’d represented Maryland for four years in the U.S. House and 23 in the senior chamber, where he earned his reputation as the goad of the Senate. After McCarthy launched a crusade against communism in his Lincoln Dinner speech in Wheeling in 1950, Tydings branded the Wisconsinite a faker and called his holy war a mirage.
Tydings' background further made him a tempting target for the farm-raised McCarthy. The lawmaker from Havre de Grace was among the Senate’s richest members (by marriage) and the most pontifical (by not knowing when to muzzle himself). His tailored suits, comme il faut diction, and baronial estate on the Chesapeake Bay made it easy for McCarthy to lampoon him as a soulmate of the elitist and leftist Foggy Bottom set. No matter that Tydings’ rise from a one-room schoolhouse and a job with the railroad was truer to Horatio Alger than McCarthy’s. McCarthy was the one framing the narrative, and in his rendering it was Man-of-the-People McCarthy versus Mi-Lord Tydings.
With the who decided, the focus switched to how. McCarthy “was so preoccupied with Tydings,” reported one person close to the Wisconsin senator, “that he’d sit by the hour figuring out ways to get revenge.” McCarthy realized what mattered most to most politicians was their reelection. Taking on a four-term incumbent like Tydings seemed pointless, which is why the only Republicans running against him in 1950 were D. John Markey, a former hat-and-shoe salesman, and John Marshall Butler, a realtor-turned-lawyer whose primary qualification was his made-for-the-Senate name. For McCarthy, those long odds made it just the attention-getting gambit to bolster his claim that a silent majority of Americans believed in his red-baiting evangelism. So just days after a committee headed by Tydings issued a blistering report on McCarthy, Joe was huddling with Butler, arming him with every weapon McCarthy knew could win elections even before Butler won his own primary.
Step one was assembling the brain trust. Who better to steer the media campaign than Bazy Miller, publisher of the Washington Times-Herald and niece of right-wing newspaper magnate Colonel Robert McCormick? The Wisconsin senator also made three personal appearances in Maryland and went on the radio. He turned over to Butler his anti-Tydings speeches and cartoons, and shifted the focus from butter-and-bread issues like taxes to whether the incumbent was “protecting Communists for political reasons.” And McCarthy’s Senate staff managed the essentials of the campaign, from research and outreach to ferrying money from Washington to Baltimore.
With funds flowing to Butler from McCarthy’s friends in Oklahoma, Texas, Maine and Minnesota, the Maryland Republican was able to spend a total of $75,000 ($818,000 in today’s terms). What later caught the attention of congressional investigators wasn’t just the huge amount for a state race, but that it was five times the limit under the Federal Corrupt Practices Act.
McCarthy’s rallying the troops for his own election wouldn’t have been unusual, but a vengeful blitzkrieg like this against a fellow senator was unheard of. The McCarthy forces were slugging lower and harder than Tydings knew how to, and had barely gotten going. McCarthy’s wife Jean Kerr helped prepare more than 300,000 copies of a four-page tabloid called “From the Record,” which described itself as published and paid for by Young Democrats for Butler. That, congressional investigators would conclude in 1951, was “a false front organization.” The 18 charges made against Tydings — including undermining American war aims in Korea — contained “misleading half-truths, misrepresentations, and false innuendos,” according to the bipartisan Senate probe.
But Maryland voters wouldn’t know those truths until later. At the time, 53% pulled the lever for the unknown aspirant Butler, 46% for the seemingly-unsinkable Tydings. It was a landslide and an earthquake. A series of factors were at play. The midterms were a slap at the unpopular President Harry Truman, as well as at Maryland’s Democratic governor who was driven to defeat by his unpopular sales tax. Tydings had alienated critical blocks of Black voters, unionists, liberals, and local politicos. Even with all of that, the incumbent’s biggest ball-and-chain was McCarthy.
The Wisconsin demagogue’s barefaced message in Maryland was heard across the nation then, and resonate today in President Trump’s bare-knuckled campaign for reelection. McCarthy’s protégé, a snarling attorney named Roy Marcus Cohn, 30 years later was young Mr. Trump’s tutor. And Cohn passed to the eventual president lessons of McCarthyism learned in Baltimore: sign on, stand aside, or beware the battering ram.
Larry Tye (email@example.com) is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, a biography of Senator Joe McCarthy, was released this summer by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.