Volume XI, Issue 20 ~ May 15-21, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

A Parable for Our Times
You probably don’t remember the McCarthy Era — but you should.

Who lies asleep upon the floor?
Why, a little mouse named Salvadore
dressed in the colors, red, white and blue.
You know he’s American through and through.
Awaken little rodent to the atomic din,
it can blow up the world, people, wood and tin.
Do you not know, fascism is a greater fear,
yet, you won’t allow it within your ear.
We’ve won the war, we’ve won the peace
We saved this earth via lend ’n lease,
but now comes the time to show the world
there’s more to justice than a flag unfurled.

Gibberish? No question about it, but those 12 lines probably altered life’s course for this writer — and probably for the better. Yet one shouldn’t look back.

The brash title of that rebellious critique of our nation was One Blind Mouse. It was printed 57 years ago in the Plainfield News, a weekly newspaper that served students and faculty of Goddard College in northern Vermont — as well as the small village of Plainfield with probably several hundred scattered residents.

Total circulation — maybe 400, seeing there were only a couple hundred students at the college that, with several others of its kind, practiced the progressive, John Dewey-mode of higher education. Which, might I add, was two strikes against students who at the time aspired to work for the government at any post higher than emptying waste baskets.

McCarthy Times
Old timers can recall the era. In those days, just the word “progressive” raised hackles. Pinko Henry Wallace was gearing up to run for the presidency, anything dubbed progressive was more than frowned upon — and Joe McCarthy was probably already laying plans to purge government, if not the entire country, of not only Communists and Socialists but anyone who didn’t think there was a commie lurking behind every door.

We were on the threshold of the nation’s greatest infamy, the shameful McCarthy Era, a time when freedom of speech — and just about anything else — was considered appropriate for only those who climbed aboard the ultra patriotic bandwagon of Tail Gunner Joe, the former deskbound Marine airman obsessed with the notion that the very fiber of our country was infested with Communists about to take over our government and the rest of the world.

Last week, the transcripts of the infamous McCarthy hearings were made public, and they brought back to this writer those days of shame and dissent.

Witch Hunting
Coincidentally, McCarthy — also known as the Pepsi Cola Kid because he previously hustled soft drinks — was first elected to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin the same year the poem was written. Not too long thereafter he took over the reins of the Permanent Investigation Subcommittee and ultimately made headlines on Feb. 22, 1950, when in Wheeling, West Va., while speaking before a women’s Republican Club, he proclaimed:

I have here in my hand a list of 205 names that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

The you-know-what hit the fan. The media headlined the accusations, and for five years this country of ours was in turmoil. Millions of citizens believed Joe Stalin and his crew were about to take over — unless a witch hunt of unprecedented intensity was immediately implemented. This despite the fact no one purported to be on that list was ever identified.

Literally, the country went into a frenzy. Everyone — from the New York Times’ James Reston to composer Aaron Copland and mystery writer Dashiell Hammett — was harassed by the tail gunner who never saw combat. Neighbors distrusted neighbors, for commies or their sympathizers could be hiding anywhere. Harry Truman was accused of protecting them, and his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, didn’t have the guts to speak out to curb the reckless and relentless accusations of his fellow party member.

It was an ongoing tirade that proved if one tells a lie enough times, it will be believed. Joe McCarthy didn’t hesitate to tell lies, and more and more citizens and newspaper editorial writers believed them. The patriotism of those who didn’t was doubted. Even fellow congressmen who had their doubts declined to speak out for fear of being Joe’s next target, for once on his list they were politically vulnerable.

The Price of a Poem
My then father-in-law wouldn’t speak to me for six months because I wrote an editorial for the Bennington (Vermont) Banner mocking McCarthy. On my auto I had plastered a bumper sticker I had had commercially printed that proclaimed “Joe Must Go.”

At the time, I was considering leaving newspapering and going to work as an information officer for the Library of Congress in Washington. The paperwork was done and the job was mine, I was told by Vermont’s junior senator Ralph Flanders, who incidentally was the first of that chamber to lambaste Joe McCarthy. Flanders was a Republican in Vermont at a time when the GOP was a shoo in, so he had little to fear.

At the Banner in Bennington, Roger Tubby stopped one day to see who he might know from the days when he started off as a reporter. He had just finished a stint as press secretary to Harry Truman. As we chatted, I mentioned my opportunity in Washington.

“Don’t go,” he said, “you’re vulnerable.” He knew of the poem from his weekly newspaper days, and he still owned a small paper in upstate New York. The poem had gained a little notoriety, seeing it originated at Goddard, which at the time was considered pinko if not downright commie. And I had written the verse.

How could a poem written hastily years before on a deadline to fill blank space in one of the smallest newspapers in the country endanger employment at the Library of Congress?

I had just been asked to run for commander of the local American Legion post. From the age of 15, every three months I had slipped into the Navy recruiting office to join up for World War II, for I knew personnel changed every 90 days and that sooner or later I stood a good chance of being accepted by a new recruiting officer more interested in signing up another Seabee for bonus points than worrying about my date of birth.

“You’re from Goddard, which is bad enough,” said Tubby. “You wrote a poem suggesting things in the country weren’t all the way they should be. You interned at PM, that ultra-liberal New York City newspaper. And you will be in the Library of Congress. You’re too vulnerable. Somebody will remember. Joe will be told, and you’ll be out of a job. And if you’re fingered by McCarthy, not many newspapers will hire you.”

After Tubby left, I remained tempted to challenge the obstacles, but concerns about being virtually blackballed within my beloved profession and in Washington without a job convinced me I was better off taking jabs at Tail Gunner Joe in columns and editorials than panhandling in D.C.

Looking Back
And there you have it. Newspapering has been a rewarding life, moreso methinks than that of a bureaucrat. In a roundabout way, I owe it all to Joe McCarthy. I’m one of the few Americans of that era who owes anything to Tail Gunner Joe, the only Marine I held in contempt. Enough said …



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Last updated May 15, 2003 @ 1:43am