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Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy    by Tom Wicker order for
Shooting Star
by Tom Wicker
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

The son of a Wisconsin chicken farmer, a school dropout named Joe McCarthy went on to become a grocery clerk, a graduate of high school (and then college and law school), a successful lawyer, a respected district judge, a decorated Marine Corps officer, and an extremely powerful United States Senator. After his service in the Marines during World War II, McCarthy shamelessly inflated his war record - with plenty of outright lies to anyone who would listen - and eventually became known as 'Tailgunner Joe' (even though the extraordinarily brazen and irrepressibly bombastic McCarthy never had one minute of experience as an airborne tailgunner).

Meanwhile, in the middle of the 20th century, America was on the verge of a difficult period. The United States during the years following World War II and during the conflict in Korea was a place wherein many citizens were very much preoccupied with the dangers of the Soviet Union and dangers of worldwide communism. Especially in the wake of the famous Alger Hiss scandal and his conviction in January of 1950, stories began to circulate widely and convincingly which suggested that communists had indeed infiltrated the highest levels of American business, society, the arts, and government. Reacting to such stories and to the wars which dominated the first half of the twentieth century, a considerable number of Americans were particularly vulnerable to anyone who would capitalize politically on the country's Cold War fears which frequently bordered on hysteria and xenophobia.

This brings us back to 'Tailgunner Joe.' During the Wisconsin native's service in the Senate, McCarthy, a remarkably energetic politician who frequently displayed brilliant instincts, seized upon an extremely fertile political opportunity when he gave a series of 'Red Scare' speeches in early 1950 and immediately thereafter began a five year campaign (prominently and relentlessly in the Senate, with hearings being broadcast and widely followed on the fledgling medium, television). Because of his tenacity and zeal, McCarthy would become known as 'the scourge of communism' and 'the menacing enforcer of real Americanism.' However, the belligerent, brusque, and bumptious Senator from Appleton, Wisconsin - so single-minded and vicious in his pursuit of communists (almost all of them wrongly accused) - ultimately became known also as the 'most destructive demagogue in American history.'

Tom Wicker's Shooting Star, a superbly informative and scrupulously documented study, gives readers (in the book's 200 pages) a compact, easily accessible portrait of one of American history's most fascinating and most seriously flawed politicians. Yes, McCarthy seems, in many ways, to have qualified as the nation's 'most destructive demagogue.' And McCarthy - the compulsive gambler and dangerously heavy drinker - would eventually, at the end of his five year reign of terror, fall quickly from his position of power and prominence into ignominious disgrace. However, as Wicker suggests in Shooting Star, perhaps McCarthy should not bear too much of the shame for the country's anti-communist hysteria; there were plenty of politicians, journalists, and citizens who supported and enabled McCarthy's inquisition; they, also, share responsibility for one of this country's most troublesome and shameful periods - an era during which paranoia, isolationism, political extremism, spurious allegations, and intolerance became acceptable.

Now, with Shooting Star as a guide, perhaps readers who look around at current events in 2006 might give some thought to the ways in which history often tends to repeat itself; moreover, Wicker's book invites us to consider the following: Yes, McCarthy is gone, but what about McCarthyism (which seems to now be on the verge of being much more than just an historically interesting word found in the dictionary)?

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