The elephantitis of the Republican Party

By on October 23, 2003

The elephant has been a symbol for the Republican Party since the November 7, 1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast parodying Ulysses S. Grant as “The Third Term Panic.” To the party, the animal is meant to symbolize dignity, strength and intelligence. To the Democrats, it seems to mean just the opposite: clumsy, awkward and stupid. The Republicans can counter: the donkey is an ass. Whatever your personal politics, I think these digs are too obvious and easy to be impressive. Yes, the real fun is when things get ugly.

Once and a while, though, along comes a man worthy of disdain and likewise, of clever barbs at his expense. Politicians leaning too far to the right run the risk of contracting a permutation of elephantitis, an unfortunate ailment known as lymphatic filariasis in medical circles.

The disease is caused by parasitic worms transmitted by mosquitoes, and currently afflicts one hundred and twenty million people in the world today. It manifests itself physically in the form of incredibly enlarged arms, legs, genitals and breasts. Parasites, grossly inflamed extremities-you can see the metaphor I am playing with here. What happens when a party infects itself with a plague that originated in the stagnant pools of its own imagination? Sadly, there is no cure for elephantitis. Let us examine one of the most notorious examples, one I mention only because of recent notice in this very publication.

Why is it that Joseph McCarthy will simply not go away? It seems that from both sides, detractors and defenders, each has a score to settle. One thing you can say for sure about the senator is that he had a good nose for what the public wanted to hear. Prompted by the press coverage of the Alger Hiss trials and with the backdrop of the Cold War, this was the perfect time for McCarthy to step into the limelight.

During his most productive period, the “Reign of Terror” as it was affectionately called later; the Rosenbergs were also convicted of espionage. No, a “Democratic Senator from Illinois” was not required to provoke McCarthy-the temptation was simply too great to resist.

On February 9, 1950, McCarthy delivered his infamous first speech at the Women’s Republican club in Wheeling, West Virginia. Documents clutched in his fist, he claimed to hold evidence of two-hundred and five government officials that were “either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party.”

At his next speech, in Salt Lake City, the number was fifty-seven. On February 20, addressing the Senate, the number fluctuated once again, to eighty-one. This is not just “fuzzy math,” to coin a phrase, but what does accuracy matter when you are of such a magnetic personality like Senator Joe?

Despite these glaring inconsistencies, and perhaps in spite of them, he became something of a media darling. Television was quite the rage in the arena of political (and public) discourse, and McCarthy knew as well as Kennedy the importance of myth-making and exposure, the latter the vehicle through which the exposition of the former could be contrived.

He was a lightning rod for controversy, and as soon as he started snagging headlines, the donations to finance his investigations kept rolling in. Too bad no one thought to track the money. According to biographer Richard Roevre’s Senator Joe McCarthy, the bulk of the money went into McCarthy’s personal bank account, squandered later on soybean investments and horse race bets.

But for four years (Robespierre could only hang for two), McCarthy was untouchable. On December 2, 1954, accused of “conduct contrary to Senatorial traditions,” the Senate voted 67-22 against him. Although this means nothing in terms of penalty or reprimand, it was only the third such condemnation in over one hundred and sixty years.

Some argue that McCarthy’s “Red-hunting” publicity mugging was part of his scheme to attract attention to his 1952 reelection campaign. There may be some truth to this, and one cannot fault a politician for self-promotion, but this one was able to shield himself from criticism through his manipulation of fear.

The game could only last so long; his ambition was the crux upon which he finally impaled himself.

I can understand the desire to defend him, as his legacy has become so muddled and confused with slander and myth that it is difficult to see the man through the hysteria that he, in large part, created. Perhaps McCarthy was not quite the monster he is purported to be, but no excuse can be made for his abuse of senatorial powers.

These days his name seems be synonymous with “witch-hunt” and a noun with an -ism suffix (thereby denoting a distinctive doctrine, system or theory) has been attributed to him, to less than laudatory praise.

None of these character attacks, I feel, are excessive. The swollen appendage of this afflicted elephant was his ego; pride was the sin the elephant had forgotten. McCarthy is no victim by any stretch, and his reputation suffers for a reason.

There were many he attacked recklessly and whose lives were adversely affected. For the sake of brevity, I’ll name just one specifically: Charlie Chaplin. An English citizen who had been living in the States for years, Chaplin flew to London to promote his 1952 film “Limelight.”

McCarthy, brilliant opportunist he was, used his commission (of which Richard M. Nixon was a member) to terminate Chaplin’s visa and leave him in exile from America.

The actor-director never reissued it despite numerous appeals. Although I cannot see how any particular political affiliation of an artist would be of crucial interest to the government, an association with the political Left does not necessarily translate to a Communist (or even Marxist) sympathizer.

This was a stigma that found acceptance in a time of conspiracy theories ripe with Communist paranoia, both conditions McCarthy helped promote, and the fallout from which, one might say, resonates still in the suspicious attitudes of conservatives today.

Chaplin would not return to the country for twenty years, at which time the Academy Awards presented him with an honorary Oscar.

Pop quiz: since McCarthy was so fond (albeit careless) with numbers, can you guess the total number of persons convicted on the accusations stemming from him and the House Un-American Activities Committee? Were they: ( a ) Two, ( b ) Ten, ( c ) Twenty-seven, or ( d ) None?

The answer is ( d ) None.

For the curious, you can hear McCarthy in all his dubious glory:


About S. Flavius Mercurius