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The Untold Story of McCarthy’s Fall

Days of Shame

by Charles E. Potter
Coward McCann, 304 pp., $5.95

In 1958, four years after his political collapse and one year after his death, I wrote a short book on Senator Joe McCarthy. It was not a formal biography but a character study of sorts, and I felt no obligation to make a record for the historians. There were, however, certain stories I wished to tell either because I thought them interesting in themselves or because they seemed relevant to my limited purposes. One that I very much wanted to tell, more because it was interesting than because it was relevant, was that of a former newspaperman named Thomas McIntyre, who was known to me and to others in Washington to have played an important but largely untold part in bringing McCarthy low. I had often heard him tell bits and pieces of his story, but in those days—1954 and 1955—I had no plan to write a book about McCarthy and so I made no notes. Nor, I found, had the other reporters who had listened to him by the hour at the Press Club bar. When I undertook the book, I wanted to get the story and to get it straight, but when I tried to run him down, I could find no trace of him. This didn’t surprise me much. He had spent much of his life as a drifter—with several Skid Row interludes—and it was quite in character for him to have left no forwarding address when he headed out of Washington. After a while, I gave up and finished the book with no mention of him except in the acknowledgements. One thing I knew for certain was that I owed a large part of whatever understanding I had of McCarthy to those long sessions with Tommy McIntyre.

I don’t have the whole story now, but for reasons that will shortly become apparent, I want to put part of what I recall—and have recently confirmed by talking with others and with McIntyre himself—on the record. As a newspaper type, McIntyre was pure Central Casting. He was a cocky little Irishman with a large gift for wisecracking and drinking. He had worked here and there in the Middle West—between periods of unemployment due to booze. He could discuss American flophouses with the authority of a Baedeker. When I knew him in the Fifties, he was on the wagon—it was always Cokes and Seven-Ups for him at the Press Club Bar—and had been sober long enough to have acquired, in the early Fifties, a solid reputation as a political reporter on the Detroit Times. He was a respected citizen of Detroit as well as a respected journalist. Michigan politicians, labor leaders, and business men wanted his good opinion and often brought their problems to him. Not long after “Engine Charley” Wilson moved in as Secretary of Defense, McIntyre was borrowed from the Times to do some kind of public-relations job for the Department. The work took him to Korea, which was where he was just before he came to Washington to have a go at a rather serious problem for the Michigan Republicans and some of their friends in the automobile business.

This had to do with Senator Charles E. Potter, who had come in with Eisenhower two years earlier. Like Eisenhower, Potter was a war hero. He had lost both legs in Germany shortly after the Battle of the Bulge. Like Eisenhower, too, Potter had a hard time focussing his attention on politics. As McIntyre was fond of saying, he seemed to have a kind of permanent “Charley-horse between the ears.” He had served without distinction in the House, which was the way he served throughout his single term in the Senate. He was in trouble on a good many fronts in 1954. At the moment, I can recall only one of his several difficulties. He had hired, as a press secretary, a rabid McCarthyite named Robert Jones. The fact that the man was a McCarthyite did not in itself bother Potter. Potter may not have been proMcCarthy himself—hardly anyone in the Senate ever was—but he certainly wasn’t anti-McCarthy. He had, though, struck up a friendship with Margaret Chase Smith, of Maine, whom McCarthy was determined to drive from office. The Senator from Maine one day complained to the Senator from Michigan that the McCarthyites were running his press secretary against her in the Maine Republican primary. They had a large bundle of Texas oil money for this enterprise, and Senator Smith was afraid. Potter asked Jones about his plan to enter the Maine primary, and Jones said he had no such plan. But Potter, who had caught Jones in other acts of political disloyalty, fired him. This got Potter into trouble with his Michigan boss, Arthur Summerfield, a Chevrolet dealer from Flint who, as Republican National Chairman in 1952, ran the Eisenhower campaign in 1952 and became Eisenhower’s Postmaster-General. To Summerfield, Joe McCarthy was a statesman and Potter an errand boy. He didn’t want the errand boy to fire a gifted and dedicated McCarthyite out to make a career for himself in Maine. On the other hand, the automobile barons who had financed Potter’s campaign didn’t like the idea of having the Michigan party mixed up in a plot to get rid of Margaret Chase Smith. They weren’t fighting McCarthy either—it would have been bad for sales—but they did have their ties with the Eastern Establishment and, thus, with Senator Smith, who, incidentally, easily defeated Jones in the Maine primary.

Potter was getting it from all sides, and someone in Michigan thought that if anyone could get Potter out of trouble it was Tommy McIntyre. He was asked if he would go to work in Potter’s office and try to clean up the mess there. This task held little attraction for McIntyre, who was half cynic, half romantic. Saving a cipher could appeal to neither side of his nature. Nevertheless, he jumped at the offer, for he saw in it an opportunity to perform a large service for the Republic. McIntyre had been brooding about McCarthy. And somehow, out of the brooding, there had descended upon him a great sense of mission. He had become seized with a vision of himself as St. George, or St. Patrick. It was to be his destiny, he thought, to break Joe McCarthy’s grip on the country. He and he alone, of all onehundred and eighty million Americans, was the man for the job. He used to tell us why he thought this was so. There was, to begin with, his general political savvy. And, thought in temperament he was somewhat closer to being a Wobbly than to being a Republican, he had very good connections with the Republicans. Moreover, he was singularly well equipped to understand the bum upon whose destruction he was bent. He and McCarthy had almost the same background: shanty Irish from the upper Middle West. He had known a hundred Joe McCarthys in his day, and this one was an open book to him—there but for the grace of, etc. Finally, and most important, there wasn’t anything Joe McCarthy could do to frighten or to hurt Tommy McIntyre. He was alone in this world. He had no wife, no kids, no dependents of any sort. He might lose his job with Potter, but he’d lost better jobs before. It might be rough finding another job, but so what? He could always go back to Skid Row. It held no terrors for him; he knew the place well and had many fond memories of it. But he wouldn’t go before McCarthy went. He was in Washington to fulfill his contract with Potter and his compact with himself. He would stay off the sauce at least until he had got this destroyer off the country’s back.

He agreed to do the job for Potter on the simple condition that, in all matters concerning Joe McCarthy, the Senator would follow, not lead, his assistant. It cannot, I regret to say, since I do not like spoiling my own story, be plausibly maintained that Tommy McIntyre was the unsung St. George. Pulling McCarthy down was never a one-man job. But McIntyre did a great deal. I think it could be argued that the Army-McCarthy hearings would not have taken place—at least when they did and the way they did—without McIntyre’s finagling. To be sure, by the Spring of 1954, the Department of the Army had come to feel that there had to be a showdown of some kind, and the chances are that if McCarthy and Roy Cohn had kept bugging the Pentagon long enough, the generals would have had to strike back in some fashion. But it is a matter of record that Potter was the first member of McCarthy’s committee to inquire into the Army’s allegations of improper conduct on the part of McCarthy and his staff, and it is a matter of my own knowledge that Potter was prodded into this by McIntyre. It took, as it happened, a good deal of prodding. Potter didn’t always live up to his part of the deal with McIntyre. Even when, thanks to McIntyre, he knew the worst, he held out for compromise. According to his memoir—the thus-far neglected work under review—he went to McCarthy and said, “Joe, you’ve got to make sense on this…. Get rid of Cohn. The Army will sacrifice Adams [John Adams, General Counsel to the Department and the man who endured the worst of Cohn’s and McCarthy’s harassments] and the whole thing will be forgotten in a week.” But McIntyre didn’t want it forgotten in a week, and he worked tirelessly to see that it wasn’t. He worked on Potter, he worked on other Senators and their staffs, he worked on the press. This last I know, for I was lobbied by McIntyre as if I had the power of Lyndon Johnson.

It is in any case beyond dispute that McIntyre and McIntyre alone was responsible for there being in the end an anti-McCarthy majority on McCarthy’s own subcommittee, the one before which the hearings were held. The situation was this: the subcommittee (officially the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Government Operations) consisted of four Republicans and three Democrats. The Republicans were: McCarthy—chairman—and Karl Mundt, Everett Dirksen, and Potter. The Democrats were: John McClellan, Henry Jackson, and Stuart Symington. Because McCarthy was himself under investigation, he graciously relinquished both the chairmanship and his seat. Mundt replaced him in the chair, and Henry Dworshak, an Idaho potato, sat, which was what he did and all he did, in McCarthy’s seat. Mundt, Dirksen, and Dworshak almost certainly feared and loathed McCarthy, but they contained their loathing and expressed their fear in sickening praise. Even under McIntyre’s inspired and frantic tutelage, Potter, a born mouse, was mousy. He now and then showed some disapproval of Cohn’s badgering of the Army, an institution he venerated, but he did not even venture so far as Mundt in engaging McCarthy’s hostility. Nevertheless, McIntyre saw to it that, when the ayes and nays were taken, Potter, to his aggrieved astonishment, found himself saying nay to McCarthy and tipping the subcommittee balance against him. McIntyre prepared a statement under Potter’s name saying that it was his, Potter’s, recommendation to the subcommittee that it fire its staff (Cohn et al) and to the Department of Justice that it seek indictments for perjury, and subornation thereof, against certain witnesses (Cohn, McCarthy, et al). McIntyre had this ready, and he had arranged with the staff of the Senate Press Gallery that, at a signal from him, they were to distribute the statement to the reporters present. At what he thought was the appropriate moment, just as the senior members were making their waffling statements on where it had all ended, he raised a finger, and there began the distribution of the Potter recommendations. It seems impossible that Potter could have had any knowedge that this statement was being distributed. For after it was in the hands of the reporters he made a waffling little talk of his own to the television cameras which made no mention of it whatever. When he was asked why he hadn’t mentioned his recommendations on camera, the only reason he gave, according to the Baltimore Sun, was that “he did not have a copy.”

McIntyre’s story then was, and still is, that if he had shown Potter what he had written, Potter would, in this crucial moment, have welshed on the deal for the last time and forbidden the distribution. So McIntyre took it upon himself to lock Potter into an anti-McCarthy position, and that, historians, is how it came to pass that a majority of the McCarthy subcommittee turned out, to the surprise of all but a few, to be anti-McCarthy in the end.

It was not, as I have said, McIntyre or any other one person who finished off McCarthy. As I see it now, and as I saw it then, the only one man who might be given a large share of the credit was Dwight Eisenhower. And this, if I am right, was not because he did anything about McCarthy but because he got himself elected President of the United States in 1952. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that from the moment of Eisenhower’s election, McCarthy’s end was in sight. It never really mattered whether Eisenhower took a stand against him or not. Eisenhower was a Republican and so, nominally, was McCarthy. Eisenhower was running a Republican government, and McCarthy was part of a Republican majority in Congress. Being part of a majority was something McCarthy could not endure or survive. He was a seditionist. His only gift was for insurrection and disorder. Sooner or later he had to attack Eisenhower, and sooner rather than later he did, and then Eisenhower, through his deputies, had to crush him. But McIntyre played his part handsomely, and what is somewhat interesting about the story now is that ex-Senator Potter has written, or has caused to be written, a book about his part in the McCarthy rumbles in which there is not one mention of McIntyre or even a hint that any such person ever existed.* Worse, the mouse whom McIntyre managed, by guile and deception, to make into a lion for one brief moment in time now claims for himself the lion’s role. Here is the way Potter now tells the story of the statement McIntyre distributed without Potter’s knowledge: “I distributed a short statement on that final day. I thought it would be a healthy antidote to the let’s-all-go-back-to-being-buddies-together oratory that I anticipated would dominate the final hour.” And he tells of what ensued:

By now the copies of my statement had been distributed to the committee and the press. I noticed that Joe McCarthy glanced at it casually and started to put it aside, then picked it up and read it. His face changed quickly to a mask of anger and without looking at me, he passed it over to Everett Dirksen. Within a few seconds, Dirksen was whispering in my ear.

Charlie, I think you should withdraw this statement.” I shook my head.

Charlie, this is a time for unity, for sweeping up the mess. I implore you to withdraw it.”

There was perjury by the basketful, and you know it, Everett,” I said quietly. “The evidence is in and now is the time to make my position known.”

He stood there for a moment but must have sensed that I wasn’t about to change my mind.

The book is called Days of Shame and is supposed to cover only a few months in 1954. It is a miserable, untruthful book but a document that is nevertheless in some ways touching, in some ways revealing, in some ways funny. Though Potter most of the time portrays his own role as admirable and maintains that he had always opposed McCarthy, he finds it necessary to convey some sense of guilt not only for what he is saying about himself now but for his sins of omission over a decade ago. “It is difficult after several years,” he writes, “to recreate one’s own thinking without rationalizing to give oneself the better of it.” It certainly is—and for Potter not only difficult but impossible. He has not just given himself the best of it but denied any part to the man who deserves the credit. He also says: “All six of us who served under McCarthy’s chairmanship must carry on our records forever a fair share of the responsibility for the whole disgraceful performance, particularly we Republicans.” But guilt raises its welcome head only once or twice; the rest is written to be read as a profile in courage, and it is sometimes hilarious. I particularly like the accounts of Potter’s conversations with Eisenhower. The first one took place at the close of the first session of the hearings. The President of the United States summoned the Senator to the White House. Potter went in through the back door “to keep the visit confidential” and on the third floor found the President.

standing by the window looking out over the balcony at the back lawn…He suggested drinks, mixed them himself, and we chatted for a few minutes.

Finally, he said, “What happened up there today, Charlie?”

It was terrible,” I said. “The whole thing is a disgrace to the Senate. He did all the things you might expect him to do and twenty million people were watching.”

You mean McCarthy?” Eisenhower asked.

Yes…”

The President snorted.

There are certain rules and regulations for hearings,” the President said.

There are certain rules and regulations for Joe McCarthy, Mr. President,” I answered, and we both laughed but there was nothing funny about it.

A lawless man,” the President said…

He slammed his fist down on the desk.

Is there any way the committee can control this man?” Eisenhower asked.

He has what he calls points of order, Mr. President,” I said. “He brings up points of order, and then he makes a speech.”

The Army can take care of itself,” Eisenhower answered. “Bob Stevens should be able to take care of himself when he takes the stand. When is that scheduled?”

He’s already on the stand.”

Eisenhower snapped around in surprise. He came back to his chair and sat down. “What happened?” he asked.

Conversations in this book,” Potter explains in a Preface, “are not offered as word-for-word, but they are reasonable constructions and expansions recreated from memory.” I find it hard to believe that the President of the United States that day didn’t know what the entire country knew—that the Secretary of the Army had been testifying. Hard—but not impossible. Anyway, Potter, or Potter’s ghost, is true to the spirit if not the letter. There was a time when Potter, like Eisenhower, thought that the Secretary of the Army could look after things. He was talking with his fellow Michigander, the Secretary of Defense and Stevens’s immediate superior, about Roy Cohn’s monkeyshines, and Wilson said, “The Senator [McCarthy] is involved in it too, and it should have been his responsibility to stop it as soon as it started.” And then:

I suggested to Wilson that Stevens, Secretary of the Army, also could have stopped it many years ago.

That’s right,” Wilson said. “But you know Stevens as well as I do. If a gunman held him up in an alley, he would hand over his wallet and then write the man a check to buy a new suit of clothes.”

This was the judgment on one of his three surrogates of the man heading up the most forraidable military establishment the world has ever seen. If only Khrushchev had known! But if he had, it would probably have made little difference.

Another exchange between Potter and the Chief Magistrate. The Senator has been explaining to the incredulous President how large and desperate a following McCarthy has.

Charlie, what can be done right now?”

Not a thing that I know of, Mr. President. The time for action, for courage was four years ago, when this whole thing started.”….

It was different in the Army,” the President said. “If a man was guilty of rebellion, we just put him in the stockade.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes, and my heart went out to Dwight Eisenhower…. He just didn’t understand.

All in all, a book to go on the shelf beside Eisenhower’s The White House Years and Richard M. Nixon’s Six Crises.

Letters

Only in America December 9, 1965

  1. *

    While doing this piece, I managed to get in touch with him. This time I had no difficulty. He is in Detroit and providing, he says, the only journalistic opposition to Mayor Cavanaugh, who appears to be greatly admired by almost everyone in the city. McIntyre has two columns—To Tell the Truth and Ad Libs—in a weekly called the West Side Courier. He claims that the whole Cavanaugh movement, for which he did a bit of flacking when it got going in 1961, is “a shell game.”

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