Red Alert

The 1954 Army/McCarthy hearings weren't the first major political investigation to be televised (that honor went to the Kefauver hearings on organized crime in 1950), but they had an unprecedented impact, pouring directly into the homes of an electorate that had previously kept the events in Washington, D.C., at a safe distance and turning a fiery confrontation between a declining but still influential (and still dangerous) politician and a body of government into a national soap opera. Not until Watergate -- still 20 years away -- would the political arena witness so charged a confrontation, so colossal a display of hubris. Here was a story of venality, intrigue and character assassination, of bullies and cowards, a tale with unscrupulous villains and -- finally -- a spark of heroism.

Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, as most people know from the "ism" that still bears his name, was a ruthless and opportunistic politician who leaped onto the anti-communist bandwagon in 1950 and almost instantly tried to position himself as grand inquisitor over all issues of treason, loyalty and patriotism. By 1954, however, his power was fading and his attacks on a presumably Red-leaning State Department began to seem even more illogical once his own party had taken over the White House. Making enemies was second nature for McCarthy, but his fall from glory came when he set his sights on a new and particularly ill-chosen target: the U.S. Army. McCarthy went after an Army dentist who had refused to answer a loyalty survey and, even worse, had taken the Fifth when testifying before the senator's committee; then he launched into a personal attack on celebrated Brig. Gen. Ralph Zwicker. The Army retaliated by letting it be known that the senator and his assistant, Roy Cohn, had announced their intention to "wreck the Army" for its failure to grant special privileges to a recent draftee, David Schine. (Cohn and Schine, described somewhat suggestively as "very close friends," had made a highly publicized tour of Europe a year earlier, attempting to remove subversive material from the libraries of U.S. offices). What began as an almost unresolvable round of name-calling and accusation turned into three months of hearings that finally allowed America to see McCarthy as the vicious and irrational combatant he was. By the time the hearings came to an end, the once-snarling senator was weaving like a punch-drunk boxer, barely aware of what had hit him.

Emile De Antonio, in his 1964 documentary Point of Order!, recently released by New Yorker Home Video, used the simplest means possible to get to the heart of the hearings: He simply let the events and participants speak for themselves without any kind of narration or exposition. This was De Antonio's first film (his later films include Millhouse, In the Year of the Pig, Painters Painting and Underground), and his minimalist method of simply editing archival footage -- in this case, 188 hours of footage from CBS News -- was so radical that the New York Film Festival rejected it as being no more than recycled television. Though the hearings were 10 years in the past, De Antonio presumed that his audience would recall the names and issues, just as a film audience in 2009 may well recall the names of Linda Tripp and Betty Currie without prompting. Or perhap he merely enjoyed the perverse logic of letting the innuendoes and grandstanding hold their own.

De Antonio adds no direct commentary to the footage, but that doesn't mean Point of Order! is a dry, objective page of history -- far from it. This is a story of good triumphing over evil, of two men going into battle. McCarthy is the dark knight, his opponent the simple and good Joseph Welch, the Army's counsel. They lock swords again and again until, finally, McCarthy's last underhanded trick, an attempt to embarrass Welch by exposing the political past of one of his employees, backfired. Welch responded with a powerful rebuttal: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness...." he began. His now-famous rhetorical question "Have you left no sense of decency?" was the magic spell that ended McCarthy's reign of terror, and in the final moments of the film De Antonio shows the senator trying to carry on with his smear tactics, only now lost in the middle of the departing crowd as they ignore him.

(Welch wasn't the only hero of the day; the film adds as a coda a fine moment by Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington, in debate with McCarthy, telling him, "The American people have had a look at you.... You're not fooling anyone, either.")

Point of Order! is an extraordinary document that should be seen by anyone with an interest in the history of this century. Besides its obvious historical value as a record of the hearings, it shows the members of Congress clumsily adapting to the new medium of television, unaware that their colleagues of later decades will become seasoned performers for the camera. They play to the cameras, bring in oversized props and even awkwardly place unfriendly parties side-by-side simply so that both will be on camera. The camera is an intrusion, even an embarrassment, but by the end it has changed the very nature of the hearings, forcing the participants to take notice of a new factor in political discourse: the audience. More important, it's a record of a small but important victory, a moment in which hateful rhetoric and unprincipled behavior are softly but soundly defeated by the force of reason. Will the low politics and partisan squabbles of today ever find such a moment? Will a De Antonio of the next century find a way to make sense of the events of the last few years? I doubt it.

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