For those of us who grew up in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin, the name McCarthy has an especially pungent resonance. We were the place from which sprung the man whose very name became synonymous with demagoguery of an especially odious, fact-free kind. Joe McCarthy, whose grave is about 1 mile from my boyhood home, represented Wisconsin in the Senate in the 1950s and became famous, then infamous, for his bullying performances in various Senate committees tasked with fighting the Red Menace. McCarthy rose steadily in prominence until he was brought low by his own overreaching, along with the now-famous scrutiny of Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch, among others. McCarthyism entered the language to describe unscrupulous behavior, specifically charging someone of disloyalty or some other malfeasance, typically without evidence or concern for the truth.
Lately the name McCarthy has been on display again, but not in conjunction with the disgraced senator resting at St. Mary's Cemetery. Another, very different McCarthy recently passed from this world - Sen. Eugene McCarthy, known famously as "Clean Gene" and fondly remembered for his 1968 presidential campaign. Eugene McCarthy was a complicated fellow, principled but typically unwilling to suffer fools gladly. He became known in his later years for being a poet and a bit of a contrarian, even supporting Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign against the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Gene McCarthy told the truth as he saw it and while he was a bit of a maverick politically, he operated without fear or malice.
Joe McCarthy's main venue was in the committe meeting rooms of the Senate, where an absurd variation of McCarthyite behavior took place this week. Prospective Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito came before the solons, looking upward (as the witnesses do) at the assembled colossi of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There Alito was regaled by seemingly endless inquisitions about mutual funds, low-powered alumni organizations and decisions involving strip searched children and insufficiently regulated machine guns. While in McCarthy's day he was the primary inquisitor, Alito faced such paragons of morality as Edward M. Kennedy, Joseph Biden and Patrick Leahy, known respectively for drowning secretaries, plagiarizing Labour Party speeches and leaking classified information. It was an appalling spectacle; many of us waited in vain for a modern-day Murrow to showcase the performances of these gentlemen, alas in vain. But you have to believe that old Tail Gunner Joe would have admired the senators for their technique.
Finally, we saw yet another McCarthy emerge in the Fox River Valley, as the Packers selected Mike McCarthy as their new head coach. This McCarthy is touted as a straight-talking, tough minded Pennsylvanian who embodies the spirit and football know-how associated with the area near Pittsburgh, home of the sainted Marino, Namath and Ditka, among others. I'm hopeful that this McCarthy will turn out better than the one who emerged from further up the river 55 years before.