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Exhuming McCarthy

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Well, Mars is the Red Planet…

“Informant stated that the general aim of these science fiction writers is to frighten the people into a state of paralysis or psychological incompetence bordering on hysteria which would make it very possible to conduct a Third World War in which the American people would seriously believe [sic] could not be won since their morale had been seriously destroyed.”

They’re coming to get you, Bradbury…Apparently, the author of The Martian Chronicles was on the FBI’s Communist watchlist in the 50’s and 60’s for penning potentially subversive “science fiction” stories. “Using a Freedom of Information Act Request, the Huffington Post received a copy of Bradbury’s file, and it turns out the FBI checked Bradbury’s passport records and staked out his house.

The Empty Wagon is the Noisiest.

Another Greenville, another Magic Mart, Jeffer, grab your fiddle… So, pop quiz: What do old-school R.E.M. and Sarah Palin have in common? They’ve both sung paeans to “Little America,” or as Governor Palin rather awkwardly put it recently, the “pro-America areas of this great nation.” In case you somehow missed what she was trying to get at, NC GOP candidate Robin Hayes said it even more plainly: “Liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God.” Or consider Minnesota freakshow Michele Bachmann, soon after deeming Senator and Michelle Obama enemies of the people: “I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.

Now, I realize the once-powerful conservative movement is now entering the late, terminal stages of its malignancy, that these floundering insults and echoes of McCarthy are all just part of the right-wing death rattle, and that it’s probably best just to look away from their interminable gesticulating and shrieking while the right melts away into electoral oblivion. But, really, eff these people. I’m so utterly sick of these conservative assholes wrapping themselves in our flag every time their narrowness and stupidity is exposed before all the world. America is so much more than the pathetic litany of grievances and bigotries these jokers trot out every time their flank is exposed. And if they truly loved America as much as they claim to, they’d know this, and stop embarrassing us all by conflating their ignorant and unprincipled antipathies with what’s good and true in our national life.

The consul a horse. Jefferson, I think they’re lost.

Hard Times.

“‘Having been blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, I know the harm of government using private corporations to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans. When government uses the telephone companies to create massive databases of all our phone calls it has gone too far.‘” Author, oral historian, and American institution Studs Terkel is one of six plaintiffs to file a lawsuit against AT&T for their complicity in the NSA master phone database.

Coming In from the Cold (War).

“[F]or all their practical failures, conservatives have at least told a coherent political story, with deep historical roots, about what keeps America safe and what makes it great. Liberals, by contrast, have offered adjectives drawn from focus groups and policy proposals linked by no larger theme.” In keeping with the intellectual territory he staked out after the 2004 election, former TNR editor Peter Beinart makes the case for a return to Cold War liberalism in a NYT excerpt of his new book, The Good Fight (also discussed in the recent Atlantic Monthly.)

I couldn’t agree more with Beinart’s paragraph above, but I don’t think the lack of a sufficiently robust national security emphasis is really the defining element missing among today’s Dems. Are there really Democrats out there who don’t agree with Beinart’s three main assessments here, that (a) America faces a real enemy in Al Qaeda and other fundamentalist terror networks, (b) our foreign policy should be less hubristic and more attuned to both local contingency and international institutions, and (c) our national sense of self should emphasize our own fallibility at times? Beinart would probably target the MoveOn crowd, but as Eric Alterman noted in the last round of this back-and-forth, that’s just a DLC straw man, roughly akin to Joe Klein’s cadre of phantom lefty consultants in the last update.

Plus, I think there are two significant historical problems with the Cold War liberalism Beinart unreservedly espouses, which he fails to discuss here. For one, Cold War liberals could very easily be seen as best inattentive to and — at worst complicit in — the excesses of McCarthyism. If the enemy abroad becomes the central defining focus of your national narrative, then the enemy within is undoubtedly going to start eating at you as well. For another, (and as John Gaddis, among others, has pointed out) — for all its early sense of diplomatic complexity and limited, realistic goals — the Cold War liberalism Beinart promotes all too readily (d)evolved into the guiding rationale for wildly wrongheaded foreign policy interventions, most notably in Vietnam. (You’d think Beinart would pay more lip service to this issue, particularly as he himself made much the same mistake in shilling for the Iraq war in The New Republic.)

In short, I agree with Beinart’s assessment that the Dems lack a sense of usable past, but the problems with his argument can be encapsulated by his ideal of a what a good, hawkish, Cold War liberal Democrat should look like these days: That, if Beinart’s tenure at TNR is any indication, would be Joe Lieberman, a politician who’s not only been flagrantly cheerleading for the administration during the current war, but has exhibited little interest in today’s wartime civil liberties issues. Simply put, Joe Lieberman would hardly be my choice of template for the Democratic party. (Who would? That’s easy: Russ Feingold, who’s displayed a strong commitment to preserving both national security and civil liberties at home, while arguing for a more level-headed, less-in-your-face American foreign policy.)

No More Toshi Station / Maeby We’ll Meet Again.

R.I.P. Phil Brown 1916-2006, who withstood the blacklist and is best remembered as Uncle Owen. (He joins Aunt Beru, who passed in 2000 (9/14).) And, also in unhappy news, farewell to the Bluths, who’ve gone the way of all good and tragically misunderstood television families…for now.

Exhuming McCarthy.

While perhaps a bit too black-and-white in terms of the history, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck is nevertheless a somber and captivating paean to Edward R. Murrow, his televised expose of Joe McCarthy, and, by extension, the Pioneer Days of Television Journalism. (In this last regard, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the excellent Clooney-produced live TV version of Fail Safe a few years ago.) It’s also assuredly a smoother, subtler, and more accomplished bit of muckraking than, say, Tim Robbins’ recent and lamentably over-the-top Embedded. Once again displaying the surprisingly strong directorial sense he exhibited in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney also benefits here from a smartly written script which refuses to talk down to its audience, the crisp black-and-white cinematography, and quality performances across the board. As a result, what could have been an above-average History Channel documentary is instead a powerful and intelligent work of cinema that’s easily one of the better films out this year.

Admittedly, as Jack Shafer pointed out in Slate, Good Night, and Good Luck is rather narrowly focused, and works better as an impassioned and articulate morality play than it does as sound history. The Murrow of this film is saintly to a fault (although David Straitharn ameliorates this with a sardonic and multifaceted performance that may well get some nods come award time.) And there’s very little historical context offered herein, either for the origins of the McCarthy hysteria or for the Wisconsin Senator’s ultimate downfall, which had more to do with picking a fight with the army than with the Murrow broadcast.

That being said, I really like the way Clooney uses archival footage in this film. For one, Clooney was clever to follow Murrow’s example and let Joe McCarthy hoist himself on his own petard. Having the real McCarthy excoriate Murrow as the “leader of the jackal pack” gives the film a sense of history (and menace) that an actorly turn couldn’t have provided. For another, Clooney, who definitely appears to have done his homework, is unafraid to cut to real historical footage — the Annie Lee Moss hearings, for example — for extended periods, and just let the inherent drama of the real proceedings speak for itself. As a result, the history feels alive and contemporary, no mean feat when so many other historical films seem to use the past as merely exotic window dressing. Could the film have been more nuanced in its appraisal of both Murrow and McCarthyism? Undoubtedly. (Then again, nuanced appraisals weren’t exactly McCarthy’s strong point, either., nor is it a long suit of his current defenders.) But on the whole, Good Night, and Good Luck is, I think, a worthy exercise in historical filmmaking, and one with some obvious relevance in light of today’s entertainment-addled, sideshow-obsessed news media.

Movie-wise, there are a few small problems. I think the GN, & GL should have done either more or less with Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as Wershbas Joe and Shirley — their particular plight doesn’t tie in to the rest of the story very well. And, while Ray Wise is good as the broadcaster-at-wits-end Don Hollenbeck, he’s also typecast in my mind — I kept expecting him to break into the Leland Palmer dance. All in all, though, Good Night, and Good Luck manages to enliven both the staid television studios of Fifties CBS and this historical moment with smoky jazz, languishing cigarettes, and ominous shadows. As the show says, see it now.

Murrow, Mines, Mobsters, Menage, and Monkey.

Soon after posting the last entry, I found a new cache of trailers for films around the corner over at Coming Soon: First off, Edward Murrow takes a journalistic stand against McCarthyism (with much explicit contemporary relevance) in the trailer for George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, starring David Strathairn, Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Daniels, and Frank Langella. Then, Charlize Theron braves borderline winds, the mining life, and sexual harassment in the preview for North Country, also with Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, and Richard Jenkins. Meanwhile, law partners John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton look for the big score in Harold Ramis’ The Ice Harvest, with Randy Quaid, Connie Nielsen, and Oliver Platt. And, finally, journalist Alison Lohman looks into the racy reasons behind the demise of comedy team Bacon & Firth in Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies (recently saddled with a NC-17), and video gamer Allen Covert pays respect to his elders in the trailer for the Adam-Sandler produced Grandma’s Boy. (To be honest, I’m only blogging this last one for the “don’t judge me” monkey bit and the too-brief glimpse of the lovely Linda “Lindsey Weir” Cardellini.) Update: Ok, one more: Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Benjamin Bratt and Keanu Reeves try to help newcomer Lou Pucci stop a nasty habit in the trailer for Thumbsucker, due out in just over two weeks.

Don’t Fault Yalta.

“Bush stopped short of accusing Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill of outright perfidy, but his words recalled those of hardcore FDR- and Truman-haters circa 1945…Bush’s cavalier invocations of history for political purposes are not surprising. But for an American president to dredge up ugly old canards about Yalta stretches the boundaries of decency and should draw reprimands (and not only from Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.)” Slate‘s David Greenberg outlines Dubya’s recent mischaracterization of the Yalta conference. Well, Dubya doesn’t even seem to understand diplomacy now, so why would he understand it then?

See it Now.

The first pic from Goodnight & Good Luck, George Clooney’s forthcoming film about Edward Murrow’s televised unmasking of Joe McCarthy, is now online. The cast includes Clooney (Fred Friendly), David Strathairn (Murrow), Frank Langella (Bill Paley), Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, and Robert Downey, Jr.

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