Exhuming McCarthy in a Novel-and Doing the Oedipal Shuffle

The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy , by William F. Buckley Jr. Little, Brown, 421 pages, $25.

Now here is an unpromising project: “a novel based on the life of Senator Joe McCarthy.” I suppose we should be grateful it’s not an opera or epic poem.

William F. Buckley Jr. has been defending Joseph McCarthy since at least 1953, when he and L. Brent Bozell published McCarthy and His Enemies . But he has always played it pretty straight with the basic facts. His new book is therefore an adequate introduction to the rise and fall of the Wisconsin senator who for a few years in the early 1950′s dominated the national agenda with fantastic, paranoid and empty claims of massive Communist infiltration of the Government. Mr. Buckley is particularly good on McCarthy’s fall, which he reductively but entertainingly attributes to the choice of Roy Cohn for a lawyer and President Eisenhower for an enemy.

While not unsympathetic to his subject, Mr. Buckley presents plenty of evidence that McCarthy was a mean, uneducated, reckless political hack and opportunist. But Mr. Buckley does not bring the man to life, and we are left more or less with the image we came in with: the ranting, the five o’clock shadow, the booze. Twice Mr. Buckley tells us that the senator liked to barbecue. We see him “cooking his beloved steaks” and then, later, “cooking a steak (on his beloved outdoor grill).” Point taken: The man loved red meat.

About half of The Redhunter is devoted to an invented narrative that only partly intersects with the McCarthy story. The players in this fictive drama are Harry Bontecou, an aide to McCarthy, and Alex Herrendon, a British diplomat and Soviet spy. Bontecou is plainly a surrogate for the young Mr. Buckley. Bontecou is thoughtful and decent in all the ways that McCarthy is not, and so Bontecou must struggle with and reject McCarthy as a father figure. This part is only dull. Book-reviewing convention forbids me from telling you that the novel’s climax is built around the revelation that the spy Herrendon turns out to be–paging Luke Skywalker–Bontecou’s father. Everything about this twist is dreadful at every level, including rudimentary craft. I’m cringing now, just thinking about it.

The pacing and structure of both parts of the book owe something to the sort of thriller you grab at the airport when you are short on time and self-respect. The chapters are slight and brisk, flitting from place to place and forward and backward in time. They all have literal titles, some of them goofy and amusing; one I liked in particular was “Eisenhower, in the Oval Office, is irked.”

The further Mr. Buckley strays from the historical record, the less convincing the novel is, as fiction or otherwise. There are some unintentionally comic scenes between McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover that take place in a spyproof electronic “bubble” straight out of Get Smart . In one, Hoover reveals to McCarthy the existence of the Venona project, which decrypted Soviet cable traffic. (The Venona files, which support the cases against Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg, were not publicly revealed until 1995.) Mr. Buckley has Hoover telling McCarthy that only six people know about the project. It is preposterous to suggest that the most secretive of men would have revealed the existence of Venona to the most reckless of men.

On the bright side, a few scenes with Whittaker Chambers, with whom the young Mr. Buckley was close, ring quite true. If Mr. Buckley only hints at Chambers’ profound reservations about McCarthy, he works hard to convey his oracular quality. Mr. Buckley quotes (or perhaps mimics) several paragraph-long passages from letters Chambers supposedly wrote to the fictional Bontecou. The quality of both the prose and the observation in these passages is extraordinary. The letters echo some of what Chambers wrote to Mr. Buckley at the time, correspondence quoted in Sam Tanenhaus’ excellent Whittaker Chambers: A Biography . (Just to bring things full circle, Mr. Tanenhaus is at work on a biography of Mr. Buckley.)

Then there are the passages of expository dialogue: One character explains to another matters well known to both, all for the reader’s benefit. Here’s a particularly dizzy patch. A Columbia professor named Willmoore Sherrill (a nod to Mr. Buckley’s favorite Yale professor, Willmoore Kendall) is addressing Bontecou, a former student and now a McCarthy aide: “Your boss McCarthy is struggling to validate his basic case made before the Tydings Committee. Something called the Gillette-Monroney Committee is established, to review your boss McCarthy’s conduct during the Tydings campaign. One of the senators who will decide his fate will be Senator Hennings. So what does he ask Hennings to do? To disqualify himself from the Gillette committee. Why? Because Hennings’ old law firm in St. Louis represents the St. Louis Post-Dispatch . So? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized against the Smith Act and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has attacked–your boss McCarthy … ‘along the same lines followed by the Daily Worker ,’ to use McCarthy’s language.”

This is not dialogue in any conventional sense. (It may have a future as libretto, though.)

The larger issues of the McCarthy era should still trouble and engage us. There can be little doubt now that the young Mr. Buckley, his mentors and coterie were right about the evil of communism as such, and of its foreign manifestations. Mr. Buckley makes this case with some overkill and triumphalism, but it is true that the lefty and intellectual classes were shamefully slow to recognize what ought to have been plain at the time.

What about the domestic front of the Cold War? There were indeed actual Soviet spies in our midst. They should have been and often were dealt with harshly. That is a different matter from persecuting people who held and expressed foolish views, even when the views as expressed may have helped the enemy. Mr. Buckley never quite says so, but he plainly approves of Senator McCarthy’s tactics, or at least the broad outlines of his basic approach. But McCarthy was incapable of drawing distinctions between words and deeds, and Mr. Buckley, who should know better, calls and raises.

His whole McCarthy apologia starts with what Mr. Buckley himself recognizes is “rhetorical shuffling.” McCarthy repeatedly said–lied–that he held in his hand lists of communists in the State Department, or wherever. Mr. Buckley would like us to believe that what he meant was different: that there were, in an ungainly phrase repeated throughout the book, “loyalty/security risks” within the Government.

The rhetorical shuffle is supposed to take care of one problem, that McCarthy never found any communists. Mr. Buckley, through Bontecou, points to evidence from an unnamed F.B.I. agent against one “Edward G. Posniak, a State Department economist.” He cites a date and a page of the Congressional Record. He tells us that we must accept this as synecdoche–the part representing the whole. Sorry, Mr. Buckley, we’re in a no-trope zone here.

But the shuffle also creates a problem. Mr. Buckley seriously contends that having leftish views, belonging to what used to be called progressive organizations,voting for HenryWallace,or just beingincompetent,oughttohave been a firingoffense,on “loyalty/security” grounds, from a Government job. In the 1950′s, this argument was pernicious but perhaps understandable given the stakes. Today it is offensive.

Mr. Buckley is disdainful of those who, in Bontecou’s words, “bring up the First Amendment and stroke that violin good and hard.” Me, I’d strike up the whole Bill of Rights band. The correct lesson to draw from the Cold War at home is that our democracy was strengthened by its general refusal to adopt the enemy’s treatment of its citizens.